You have probably recently come up against some ideas calling themselves “anti-racism.” Nearly everybody has. Not only will you have encountered them, it’s likely that they also will have taken the liberty of essentially telling you whether or not you are racist—and, more likely, why you probably are. One thing you will have noticed about these approaches to “anti-racism” is that they explicitly tell us that there is no such thing as being “not racist” or even “less racist.” This is patently absurd, but because these ideas have gathered so much widespread support and adoption in recent months and years, we are now offering this essay as a guide to explain to readers how they can, in fact, be not-racist, which we also argue they should want to be and should be expected to be.
As it stands, this guide is very long. This is because we want to be very thorough and provide the clearest understanding of the relevant issues as possible while giving actionable steps you can take to become not-racist, if needed, and to be confident that you are not racist. Because this guide is so long, it will be broken into two parts. First, immediately following this introduction, a short summary of the major points of the longer essay, and then, following that, a considerable elaboration on each of these points that goes into tremendous detail and offers practical advice.
This opening section sets the stage for the need for a guide on being not racist, in light of the current specious belief that one must choose between being “anti-racist” (on very particular terms) or accept being “racist” by default. Understanding this context is necessary to understand both why a guide like this is necessary and how the current choice about racism is false, which is necessary to understand in order to reject it and genuinely be not-racist. Thus, here, we provide a brief overview of the two major approaches to “anti-racism” that are prevalent today, that of “critical whiteness educator” Robin DiAngelo and that of critical historian Ibram X. Kendi. In particular, we outline how both of these Theorists, though different in approach, falsely dichotomize the world into “racists” and “anti-racists,” each in their own ways. Both deny any possibility of being not racist, which we reject and encourage you to reject as well.
If one wants to confidently be or become not-racist, a clear understanding of racism is necessary. We believe this clear understanding has become almost impossible to attain in the present circumstance because there are so many conflicting and complicated definitions of “racism” competing with one another. Our solution to this is to combine them into a simpler definition of racism: the placement of social significance into racial categories for the purposes of negative prejudice or discrimination, especially when generating conditions for the belief in the superiority or inferiority of some races as compared with others. If one understands this definition of racism clearly, being confidently not-racist is a straightforward matter of consistently not doing that. People who wish to be or become not-racist, or who wish to increase their sense of confidence in their status as not-racist, can then undertake any variety of exercises to help them identify if they are doing that and then stop it. Those who are not doing this can be confident that they are not racist.
For those who feel as though they can confidently assert that they are not putting social significance into racial categories as indicated, feel confident that you are not-racist. For everyone else, and for those who wish to deepen their understanding of the relevant issues, aim to become less racist and eventually not-racist, or want to increase their confidence in their status as being not-racist, we offer twelve specific pieces of advice for becoming or being not-racist and feeling confident in that status.
If you want to be not-racist, you have to spend time getting to know yourself first. It’s possible that you’re racist and realize it, that you’re racist and don’t realize it, that you’re not racist and don’t realize it, or that you’re not racist and realize it but want to be more confident in this fact about yourself. To be confidently not-racist, you need to know where you stand and check in with yourself against the backdrop of a clear understanding of racism. This means you need to know whether or not you’re putting actionable social significance into racial categories that results in prejudice, discrimination, or racial superiority or inferiority. Getting to know yourself in light of this clear understanding of racism is a first necessary step to being confidently not-racist. Take time to ask yourself questions and to consider how you act, speak, and believe where issues of race and racism are relevant.
Because the starting point of racism is best understood as the placement of illegitimate social significance into racial categories in ways with negative consequences, consistent application of universal principles of fairness and equality where race and racism are concerned is the enemy of racism. It is, however, difficult to be consistently principled without taking time to do some work to identify consistent principles. If you want to be not-racist, you need to identify consistent and universal principles that treat people fairly and honestly regardless of their race or ethnicity. Take time to consider various situations and circumstances relevant to race and racism and see what applying consistent principles in those situations would genuinely look like, then try to imagine yourself applying them that way.
We are of the mind that if you are genuinely consistently principled, you will arrive at two fundamental axioms of philosophically liberal thought, at the least. One is that all members of Homo sapiens are human beings, and thus we all share something fundamentally human in common which serves as a basis for human rights that are universal, rationally and empirically derivable, and “self-evident.” Another is that every member of H. sapiens is an individual who should be judged as such in terms of his character and application of talents. That is, to be fully consistently principled, we believe that the philosophically liberal axioms of shared humanity and individualism are sure conclusions that must be elevated. As a consequence, racial prejudice and discrimination makes no sense and should be avoided. People who are not-racist will therefore treat every person as a unique individual who is a member of a human race that is universally shared by us all.
Once you know your consistent principles of universal fairness and equality, it’s time to put them into action. In this step to becoming not-racist, you are going to have to combine the efforts of the previous two steps (which identify your “you are here” and your “not-racist is here” points) and start to draw the map that takes you from where you happen to be to where you want to get. This step may take practice, but it is, ultimately, the last necessary step to becoming not-racist if you have genuinely succeeded at the previous two steps. The remaining nine points are recommendations to help you improve your ability to execute these three steps to becoming and being consistently and confidently not-racist.
The most important part of this step is applying your consistent principles to treat all people as unique individuals who share a common humanity. It is immediately obvious that doing so avoids the temptation and mistake of putting actionable social significance into racial categories.
Until relatively recently, it was generally understood that racism was the result of ignorant, bad, or malicious beliefs or the implementation of institutional policy or laws that disenfranchise and discriminate against some people and not others on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Now, due to the introduction of “systemic racism” from Critical Race Theory, which claims to identify racism that occurs independently of any beliefs, speech, actions, or institutions—i.e., in mysterious ways that produce inequitable outcomes for certain races (but not others, e.g., black but not white, or black but not necessarily Asian, or African-Americans but not necessarily African immigrants)—the situation has become more complicated. It is in the domain of “systemic racism” that the argument that there is no such thing as being “not racist” seems to gain traction, and this must be rejected.
To simplify the “Critical” argument about race that concludes that being not-racist is impossible, everything to do with racism comes down to one simple choice everyone has to make. The system is assumed to be racist because outcomes are not wholly equal, and the choice is “do you accept this, including tacitly and by mistake or do you reject it by actively fighting it?” Those who take up “active anti-racism” on Critical Race Theory terms and do it essentially perfectly are “anti-racists.” Everyone else is “racist.” Because perfection is impossible, essentially everyone who is “anti-racist” is also “racist” at the same time on these terms. Being “not racist” is not possible because the idea of living a life that does not focus on race is deemed to be siding with “systemic racism.”
Being not-racist requires rejecting this construction more or less entirely because the construction itself puts prejudicial and discriminatory social significance into the various racial categories. White people become people who must think and act in certain ways (white allies); black people become people who must think and act in certain ways (don’t “act white” or be a “race traitor”); Asian people become people who must think and act in certain ways (don’t be a “model minority” and recognize Asian “anti-Blackness”); and ever on across every conceivable racial category (interrogate “brown privilege” and “brown fragility”) because of the way that “social forces” and “power dynamics” interact with the accidents of their births. Therefore, being not-racist means understanding and rejecting this line of thought as well as recognizing that people who engage in it are, in fact, the ones acting and believing in racist ways.
Objective in theory means in faithful correspondence with reality. Objective in practice means “maximally impartial.” Objective standards, then, are the ones that remove as much partiality as possible, including partiality located in racial group membership. Obviously, racial group partiality requires putting discriminatory and/or prejudicial social significance into racial categories, so people who wish to be not-racist must resist the temptation to do this. Setting and maintaining the most objective standards possible is the easiest way to ensure racial group impartiality, so people who wish to be not-racist should prefer and defer to the least partial, i.e., most objective, standards possible in as many situations as possible.
What do objective standards look like? Objective standards in knowledge production rely upon tools like science and rationality, which are available to everyone and that take steps to minimize biases through competitive checking of each by each and applications of rigorous methodologies. In fact, they only work as advertised if they work for everyone, impartially to the accidents of their identities. Objective standards in law look like laws and legal systems that are anti-discriminatory in an identity- or race-neutral way (i.e., equality theory and neutral principles of constitutional law), adopt maximally impartial standards like reliance upon evidence and reasonable-person standards, are applied procedurally to minimize human caprice and error, and are deferred to as they are on the books at the time, as adjudicated by judges and juries held to agreed-upon and fair standards of jurisprudence and selection. Objective standards in admission or promotion rely as much as possible on objective assessments like standardized tests and as little as possible on subjective assessments like political or ideological statements. That is, the identifiable fruits of merit and character, measured as objectively as possible, are necessary standards to defer to as much as possible if one wants to be not-racist.
One of the most common mistakes made today around the issue of race and racism is to assume racism is always present. By assuming the existence of “hidden” racism and going looking for ways to identify as it, you’re more likely to find it where it isn’t than not. This can result in racializing or otherwise putting social significance into racial categories in prejudicial and discriminatory ways when that is unreasonable. Being not-racist therefore starts with an assumption of innocence about racism and carefully examines both outcomes and intentions to determine if racism is the right diagnosis for a phenomenon and only concludes racism is present when a reasonable standard of evidence for the charge can be met (which may depend upon the gravity of the circumstances).
Standpoint epistemology is a fancy way of saying that the lived experience of “systemic oppression,” say by being black in an allegedly anti-black or white supremacist culture, confers a special kind of insight and understanding that renders someone more (or less) credible (e.g., people who belong to “privileged” racial groups are believed to be ignorant, perhaps willfully, as part of the condition of their privilege and are therefore considered less credible). It very obviously places prejudicial and discriminatory social significance into racial categories, then, and so people who want to be not-racist must reject standpoint epistemology and other approaches to perspectivism that operate in similar fashions. Try to see people as individual agents who are capable of rationality, error, good, and evil and treat them as such, not as oracles or imbeciles due to features of their racial groups’ alleged relationships to systemic power.
Compassion is a double-edged sword in many regards. On the positive side, it can motivate us to take targeted action to minimize harm, unfairness, and injustice everywhere we find them. On the negative side, it can mislead us into impulsive action that has not been carefully reasoned out and set against objective standards. Emotional reasoning can often lead us into the famous trap outlined by the following failed line of reasoning: we have to do something, and this is something! That is, compassion can lead us to make bad decisions that do not actually help—or perhaps that harm—the situation we are motivated to try to improve. Curbing our compassion is a necessary step to being not-racist because the negative side of compassion very frequently leads us to put inappropriate social significance into racial categories in the hopes of doing something about current inequities or achieving a shortcut to “racial reconciliation.”
Critical Race Theory is a sprawling but specific approach to understanding race and racism that we assess, after much study, is occasionally insightful yet nearly always wrong about the issues that it obsessively interrogates. Indeed, Critical Race Theory very reliably gets nearly every analysis and prescription with regard to racism almost exactly backwards. In that regard, Critical Race Theory can be very useful to study not just for people who want to be “anti-racist” on its broken terms but who also want to be confidently not-racist (a status it categorically rejects). The method is simple: learn enough Critical Race Theory to understand how it would read the relevant racial dynamics and then reject that analysis almost completely. This is one of the most powerful tools we are aware of for being confidently not-racist, and it is therefore highly recommended to people who wish to undertake more advanced not-racist training.
Not everything in Critical Race Theory is garbage. In being hypersensitive to racism, Critical Race Theory can also operate as a hypersensitive racism detector that detects genuine kernels of truth about racism that might otherwise go overlooked. So long as one does not fall into the bad analysis, diagnosis, and prescriptive habits of Critical Race Theory, this can be very useful to those who wish to be not-racist and feel confident in that status. What Critical Race Theorists often call “the work” with explicit demands that you “do” it, people who wish to reject Critical Race Theory to be not-racist can examine to find those useful kernels for themselves.
For example, Critical Race Theory often bemoans a lack of self-reflection, challenging engagement, and authentic relationships where race and racism are potentially relevant. These are all things that are easy to do on responsible, rather than critical, terms. In fact, the first steps in this guide explicitly recommend self-reflection and engagement, including with a wide ideological diversity of race-relevant literature and media (see longer exposition below), and we encourage forming genuinely authentic relationships across racial lines that begin from individualism and universal humanity. That is, we recommend making race and racism minimally relevant to your friendships and other relationships rather than poisoning them by turning them into sites for activist politics. As with the common mistake often made that assumes colorblindness means completely being unaware of race and racism (i.e., “racism blindness”), the same is true with our recommended approach to relationships and engagement.
Critical Race Theory often explicitly demands people listen to people of “minoritized” races and hear their stories on their own terms. We agree and recommend this is done universally without putting social significance into racial categories in terms of whose stories are more credible and important to be heard. Listening more and listening better are valuable exercises, as are other forms of engagement, and we have the best chance of understanding one another and transcending our differences successfully when we apply this universally and equally. The goal of being not-racist can be enhanced dramatically by examining “the work” recommended by Critical Race Theory and doing it more honestly using consistent principles.
Being colorblind was one of humanity’s better ideas, but it is often misunderstood and so has been put under fire quite unfairly and to our detriment. If you want to be not-racist, then, you should first properly understand what is meant by being colorblind and then adopt it as part of your suite of consistent principles (consonant with steps 2 and 3 above).
Colorblindness is, in fact, not putting prejudicial or discriminatory social significance into racial categories. Colorblindness is not failing to see “color” (race) at all, which is absurd and impossible. Colorblindness does not need imply “racism blindness,” which is a form of ignoring racism when it is genuinely occurring because of a refusal to acknowledge that even when we ourselves do not put prejudicial and discriminatory social significance into racial categories, others might be doing so. In practice, colorblindness means not making race matter where it would be prejudicial or discriminatory for it to matter, and as blindness implies “not seeing” color (this way), it should be applied consistently and in a principled fashion. We can be colorblind quite simply by doing no more than acknowledging the minimum amount of social significance in racial categories as possible in every situation and making none of it actionable, particularly in professional, educational, and legal environments.
The hardest test of colorblindness is to ask yourself if you are willing to criticize a person for their mistakes regardless of their race. If you find it easier to criticize some races than others, you are putting actionable social significance into racial categories on some level and need to review your approach to being not-racist and continue to make strides to improve. This will also apply to making racial (not racist) jokes (racist jokes are intentionally disparaging on account of one’s race). If you are uncomfortable talking frankly about or to members of some racial categories and not others, including making friendly race-relevant jokes in good humor, then you are likely to be harboring some racism yourself still. Being not-racist requires examining this circumstance in a nuanced and principled way and getting over those hangups.
This last step is, of course, not a step at all but a reminder in very plain language of the one and only thing a person needs to do to be not-racist. Don’t put actionable social significance into racial categories for the purposes of prejudice or discrimination, especially when beliefs of racial superiority or inferiority are likely to result for any racial group because of it. That’s really it. If you’re doing that, stop it. Then you’re not racist.
In practice, as previously stated, this will quite reliably look a certain way. It will be consistently principled, see the universal humanity shared by all members of Homo sapiens, and judge each person as a unique individual member of that species according to his character, merit (earned application of talents), and individual personality in a way that is as colorblind as one can be in each situation. It will therefore involve having authentic relationships from person to person regardless of race in every setting without reading racism into it and then looking to find it, and it will value the most objective standards and analyses possible. It will also reject Critical Race Theory’s racist doctrines, beliefs, and practices, including approaches to “anti-racism” that are rooted therein. If you are doing all of this, congratulations: you’re not racist! If you aren’t yet, now you know what to work for.
Close of Summary
We believe that if you understand and follow these guidelines, you can reduce, minimize, or even end your own racism and/or maintain in confidence your status as a person who is not racist. If you are short on time or just came back to this essay for a reminder, you can stop here. If you want a great deal more detail on this important issue to ensure that you can be confidently not-racist, please continue below. The headings above are linked to the various sections of the longer essay for your convenience.
Currently, nominally “anti-racist” ideas come in two primary flavors, DiAngelo and Kendi, named for the two primary activist-scholars promoting them, and these share a key point in common: there’s no such thing as “not-racist.” This is completely incorrect and proceeds from a poor but strategic and politically actionable understanding of racism that is common in the Critical Race Theory literature.
If your exposure to “anti-racism” derives mainly from Robin DiAngelo’s stance on this issue, you will have learned that, if you are white, you are racist by virtue of your unavoidable complicity in a system of “whiteness” that you necessarily benefit from. She then offers you the false choice of either being racist and admitting it—and then “doing the work” of dismantling it—or being racist and denying it for selfish, self-protective reasons. For DiAngelo, there is no neutral, one is either a racist who has taken up anti-racism or a racist who hasn’t, and only the former is acceptable. She takes this view to extreme lengths. “I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir,’ or already ‘gets it,’” DiAngelo writes in her blockbuster bestselling book, White Fragility. She continues,
White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.
Not only are white progressives who pride themselves on being not-racist people who “uphold and perpetrate racism,” to DiAngelo, they’re among the worst people for doing so. This is because, to DiAngelo, to believe that you “get it” about racism and that you’re “less racist” as a result is to make you less willing and less able to be “anti-racist,” as she defines the term (a lifelong commitment to an ongoing process of self-reflection, self-critique, and anti-racist social activism). For DiAngelo, there is no such thing as being not-racist, at least not if you’re white, white-passing, white-adjacent, acting white, or receiving white reward.
If, on the other hand, you are more familiar with Ibram X. Kendi’s brand of anti-racism, you will have learned that you can hold beliefs and advocate actions that are either “racist” or “anti-racist,” and you can tell which these are by whether your thoughts or actions increase or decrease racial disparities. What you cannot be, however, is not-racist. He’s quite explicit about this, writing in his own bestselling book, How To Be an Anti-Racist,
The opposite of racist isn’t “not racist.” It is “anti-racist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.”
Pressed on the point on Twitter, Kendi took the idea further, “Actually what I’m saying is we should eliminate the term ‘not racist’ from the human vocabulary. We are either being racist or antiracist. Is that clear for you? There’s no such thing as ‘not racist.’”
On this point, then, DiAngelo and Kendi are agreed. There is no such thing as “not-racist” In reality, however, there is. If you are a person who doesn’t think evaluating your fellow human beings by their skin color makes a lot of sense and, consequently, doing so isn’t generally something that occurs to you as you go about your life, you are probably not racist.
Surprisingly, this is a fact that so many people have come to take for granted for so long now that many have apparently forgotten that it is possible to be not-racist, thus necessitating a guide to not doing something. (Just don’t do it?) Technically, then, this is not a guide on how to be not-racist, because that is accomplished simply enough by neither holding racist beliefs nor engaging in racist behaviors (and, yes, intentions matter a lot here). It is more accurately understood as a guide to understanding the relevant issues around race and racism and thereby to recovering the sense of moral authority that you had rightly placed in your status of being not-racist up until recent attempts to mass-shame and mass-guilt us out of that reasonable sense mainstreamed.
To proceed with a guide on how to be not-racist, we need a clear understanding of racism. We propose to use a slightly more developed definition for the term than the commonly accepted “prejudice on the grounds of race.” We recommend thinking of racism in the way that our “anti-racist” friends in Critical Race Theory departments would if they were consistent in their own analysis.
Racism: Placing social significance into (socially constructed) racial categories for the purposes of prejudice or discrimination on the basis of those categories or to declare one or more of those categories superior or inferior to others.
This definition for racism takes us one step back from the standard one that we understand—discrimination on the grounds of race—and puts racism at its proper origin point: placing undue and prejudicial social significance into racial categories. To give an identity category social significance is to ascribe value-laden meaning to it and to do so in relation to its role in and impact on society. When this meaning is negative, whether borne in ignorance or malice, this is the undeniable seed of racism. Being not-racist begins by understanding that this signification of racial categories is the place from which racism grows and then taking measures not to do it.
This definition also makes quite clear that racism is a matter of belief and action, not of being, which means it is something that is relevant to the individual or a group of individuals with shared beliefs about race, not a property inherent to individuals or groups of individuals defined by shared immutable characteristics. That is, racism is something like an ideology about identity and actions taken in alignment or support of that ideology, and as such is something that can be believed by anybody, regardless of the accidents of their birth. Thus, it is less accurate to say someone “is a racist” and more accurate to say that such a person holds racist beliefs or acts in racist ways. This means it is entirely possible to be not racist. Being not-racist is merely a matter of not believing and not doing racist things.
Neither DiAngelo nor Kendi understand racism this way. Both see racism as “systemic” instead, though in different ways that share not roots but a common endpoint—a lack of racial equity as proof of racism in the system. For them, the relevance of individual action and belief—thus “complicity” in systemic racism—amounts to one’s answer to the question, “do you find it acceptable (explicitly or tacitly) that certain racial inequalities exist, at least some of which have roots that are genuinely unfair?” and naming as “racist” anyone who says “yes,” in any capacity, including by saying “no, but it’s just the way it is” or “no, but the reasons for this are complicated and not necessarily all to do with racial discrimination.” It is from this understanding that they divide the world into “racist” and “anti-racist” with no possibility for “not racist” and determine that you’re either “actively anti-racist” by fighting to eradicate the inequities of the system or complicit in upholding racism. They overlook the straightforward fact that one can find a problem unacceptable without devoting many of their resources to it (e.g., how most of us feel about malaria, which is a leading cause of preventable human suffering and death that few of us actively intervene upon without being considered pro-malaria as a result). They also deny that one can approach these problems in other ways than they prescribe, say through (mostly) colorblind analyses of economic class, as we tend to see in Marxism and liberalism, particularly left-liberalism.
Both DiAngelo and Kendi also begin by placing social significance into socially constructed racial categories (or, at least, defending the idea that such significance is there and should be focused upon) for the purposes of prejudice and discrimination. That is, they begin from racism and then label as “racist” anyone who doesn’t take up their approach to “anti-racism,” and, worse, they do so in varying degrees depending on the race of the person in question.
DiAngelo’s entire oeuvre is a testament to doing this with white people, who exhibit “white fragility,” work to maintain “white privilege,” “white comfort,” “white equilibrium,” and “white solidarity,” and suffer from many other “white something” moral ailments, all thanks to the corrupting influence of “whiteness.” Indeed, she describes her approach to anti-racism explicitly as the effort to “become less white” (instead of trying to become “less racist,” which we saw she explicitly denounces). Kendi is more subtle, but nevertheless observes, “The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” In other words, he needs to put social significance into racial categories for the purpose of discrimination wherever it might be believed to ameliorate “inequity.”
That end point—the lack of equity, which is, by definition, said to be caused by “systemic racism”—is where DiAngelo and Kendi converge. It is also where their definition departs from a useful understanding of one of the more important concepts of the last five hundred years of human history, that being racism. For them, to be “racist” is to exist within an inequitable system without devoting most of one’s energy to dismantling that system because for them “racism” is the nebulous explanation for every failure of equity that favors privileged groups. This is simply a bad, low-resolution definition for racism that, even when it avoids being racist on its own, very reliably leads to racism in application and practice because redistributive discrimination according to racial category and/or collective blame of a racial category, both of which imbue said categories with social significance, is virtually always the prescribed remedy.
A point DiAngelo gets partially right, then, is that it is not possible to be not-racist if one thinks about race and racism as she does. For us, to be not-racist therefore necessarily begins with rejecting the “systemic” understanding of racism forwarded by Critical Race Theory almost entirely—not just because it removes the matter from the realm of the individual by design but also because it is, itself, racist. It is so in that it defines certain racial categories as being associated with dominance, which is to be read pejoratively, and makes racial scapegoats of their members. It also condemns members of other racial categories who do not behave, believe, or speak in ways Theory deems “authentic” to the lived experience of that racial category (e.g., by accusing them of “acting white” or being a “race traitor” if they are a black person who does not hold the approved anti-racist perspective). Further, in practice, racial superiority is reliably read into surviving and resisting systemic “oppression”—see José Medina on the “epistemic virtues” associated with this position—while racial inferiority is connected with being positioned within racial privilege—think of DiAngelo’s terms of “white fragility,” which indicates a “lack of racial stamina” and “racial humility,” to say nothing again of the accusations of being “white-adjacent” or “acting white.”
If you’re in a hurry, then, you’re done. You know how to be not-racist: don’t put social significance into racial categories for the purpose of prejudice or discrimination, don’t hold racist beliefs or undertake racist actions, and more or less reject Critical Race Theory and its views about systemic racism. If you want to understand how to be truly not-racist, however, read on at length, where we expand upon many important details.
We now turn to a fair number of concrete steps backed with detailed explanations that a person can take to minimize how much social significance they place into racial categories and thus provide them with an actionable guide for how to do what the likes of DiAngelo and Kendi assert is impossible: be not-racist.
Ask yourself honestly. Are you racist? When you encounter another person, do you place them into a racial category and then ascribe social significance to that category? You might do. If you were raised in a family or community that did this, you could well have picked it up yourself and have retained negative assumptions about people of a certain race. Alternatively, you might have been raised in a family or community that saw people as individuals, but were later taught (especially at school or university) that there is a moral imperative to notice what race people are and apply social significance to this. You may therefore now find it difficult not to see individuals in terms of racial categories embedded within systems of power and arranged in a moral hierarchy (learning Critical Race Theory tends to have this effect on otherwise not-racist people).
If you do find yourself suffering from either of these failures to be not-racist, do not judge yourself too harshly; it indicates hope. You’ve already taken the first step toward being not-racist: recognizing that you are doing the one thing that most reliably leads people to be racist, which is putting social significance into racial categories. This means that you can also stop doing it. We know that racism is not innate to humans because there haven’t been races in conflict (or indeed any people who weren’t black) for long enough for any hardwired cognitive mechanisms for applying social significance to skin color to form. Though race isn’t totally absent from the list of relevant factors of human groupishness and tribal division, it is not high on that list. Dialect and other outward markers of social affiliation, like modes of dress and appearance, are far stronger markers of group identity for humans. Consequently, people can and do overcome any tendency to place social significance into racial categories quickly and easily when they have shared goals, adopt supraordinate group identities that aren’t based on race, and seek to blend (rather than to protect) any relevant cultural features that can be too-easily and mostly wrongly associated with race.
If, on the other hand, you do not find yourself suffering from either of these failures, then you can also feel more confident that you are, in fact, not-racist, despite what the race Theorists want you to believe about yourself. If you are one of countless people who have never been taught to attach social significance to race by either their family or anti-racist scholars, or who have worked out a way not to do it any longer, there’s a strong chance you are, in fact, not racist. Becoming more aware of what can prevent you from becoming racist is therefore the main objective of this guide for you.
As a corollary exercise within this self-inventory, take time to check with yourself and ask whether you are assigning guilt to yourself for allegedly racist things that you didn’t do based upon your skin color. If so, you should stop doing this because it is, in fact, racist, so you’re making the problem worse. By assigning group guilt to your racial group and taking it on yourself, you are, in fact, ascribing a social significance to race that leads to viewing it as inferior to other races. Similarly, ask yourself if you are taking moral responsibility for things you did do because of your racial identity (like having dressed in the “wrong” clothing as a white person at some point in your life, like on Halloween). While taking moral responsibility for our actions is good, the reasons must be accurate. To believe that there are certain right and wrong behaviors for different people based on their race is to assign social significance to racial categories in a way that is, ultimately, racist.
Get to know your own principles as well as you can, particularly around the topic of race. Really take some time to ask yourself what you think a principled view of race and racism should look like. You have to learn a bit about yourself and the key ideas surrounding the topic of racism. Critical Race Theory gets this point right but in the wrong way.
Ask yourself, should a principled approach to race and racism be based in equality? Equity? Do you understand the difference between these ideas? Should it veer toward a multiculturalist approach, where different cultures are largely protected from one another and interact with minimal sharing, or toward a pluralistic approach, where differences can be celebrated even as they blend into a larger cohesive whole? When should diversity be oriented around immutable characteristics like race, and when is it better for diversity to be based upon viewpoint regardless of race? When does race matter, and when doesn’t it? How does the high prevalence of mixed-race people complicate these views? What should one do with the statistical accuracy of stereotypes in the face of the fact that individual human beings aren’t statistics but people who might defy them? What’s the difference between a “race” and an “ethnicity,” and why does this different matter? What does “colorblind” really mean, and is it good? Are objective standards more likely to help or to hurt?
Ask yourself these kinds of questions and genuinely grapple with them. Don’t just think about answers to these questions; seek to articulate them on a verbal level rather than just recognizing them as moral intuitions that push and pull you toward or away from specific beliefs and actions about race being right or wrong. Wrestling with these issues and getting clear, principled answers to them is crucial to being consistently and confidently not-racist.
In many cases, doing this will require spending time thinking of the relevant questions and then looking into the relevant concepts. It isn’t meant to be simple and easy, though it is meant to be doable (unlike the “lifelong commitment to an ongoing process” in which “no one is ever done” that we hear from anti-racism programs like Robin DiAngelo’s). It will require some thinking, some reading, and some speaking out loud (if only to your cat) or writing to really grapple with the ideas and issues. It will also require spending some time thinking about why you feel so strongly that something is right or wrong, which then enables you to argue for it and ensure that you are being consistent about it. An exploration of this type might look like this:
Why do I dislike identity politics?
Because I feel like it stops us seeing people as individuals and also as members of the human race.
Principle: I value individualism and humanism.
Check: Do I object to identity politics consistently no matter which racial group is doing it?
Put special attention on the idea of being consistently principled here—“do I object no matter which racial group is doing it?” A very useful exercise to become not-racist is to consider various scenarios and the principles you believe are involved, then change the racial categories around and see if they still make sense. If you find that something feels off when you change the racial categories, you must be putting social significance into racial categories. Check yourself to make sure that this has no capacity to become discriminatory or prejudicial, thus racist.
Because racism arises from putting social significance into racial categories in a way that it doesn’t belong, being consistently principled in this way is key to being not-racist. Racism often manifests by applying social significance to racial categories to avoid being consistent in one’s principles, including by giving members of certain racial categories an undeserved pass. Be sure to ask yourself if you are relying upon a theoretical approach, like Critical Race Theory, that skews consistency of principle intentionally as a response to alleged power dynamics in society (or, at least, ask yourself if that’s appropriate or defined in a sufficiently nuanced and rigorous way to do the job it proposes to do). Remember, the origin point of racism is putting social significance into racial categories in such a way as to enable prejudice or discrimination, so if you find yourself convinced that alleged racial power dynamics are both relevant and sufficiently reflective of reality to merit consideration, be sure to wrestle with how this might be applied in a way that neither requires nor allows for racial discrimination or prejudice.
Your principles can express a commitment to big influential aspects of society like democracy, liberalism, progress, justice, equality, and science. They can reflect the stance you believe it is most ethical to take in relation to race—for example, a commitment to colorblindness (not finding someone’s race to contain any significant information about what kind of person they are and what they are capable of) but rejection of racism-blindness (refusing to see when a person, organization, or system is putting social significance into race and, for that reason, failing to object to it). They can also be personal like trying to be kind and charitable and keep an open mind to new ideas.
As you think about your principles, you should consider keeping notes or journaling, ideally doing what you can to identify the key principles that you’re deriving from your efforts. At each point where a principle can be derived, ask yourself how you can make it racially consistent. From those, you might even find it useful to write something like a constitution of yourself, where you articulate your consistent, not-racist principles in a way that makes sense and can serve as a future guide. Amendments can be added if you find you need to adjust something! This can be a complex process, so be open to revisiting the exercise from time to time to add depth or nuance as proves necessary.
Finally, while we believe every person should be free to take their own journey in this regard, it is our opinion that this process of finding consistent principles should lead to the two most fundamental axioms of philosophical liberalism: a shared sense of common humanity among all human beings and a readiness to meet each human person as an individual. That is, universal humanity and individualism are, in our eyes, the consequence of getting one’s principles about issues of identity on a consistent basis. The currently dominant approaches to “anti-racism” reject both of these liberal principles on the ground that being consistent in them denies the relevance of group identity, which means placing prejudicial and perhaps discriminatory social significance into racial categories. Those approaches make that fundamental mistake intentionally and should therefore be avoided by anyone wishing to be not-racist.
For us, then, being not-racist ultimately begins with two very simple principles. Treat everyone you meet as a fellow human being, and treat everyone you meet as a unique individual to be judged on her own merits and character, as revealed in her speech, beliefs, and deeds. This is overwhelmingly the most important ingredient in being not-racist, and, frankly, it is not that hard.
Now that you’re working out what your principles are, adopt them and live by them as consistently as possible. Having consistent principles is the starting point of living a principled life, and its continuation is being honest enough with yourself to acknowledge when you deviate from your personal or institutional constitution and then correcting yourself. What you will find is that when you are being principled in clear-eyed awareness of what your principles are and why you hold them, it is much easier to resist social pressures to be unprincipled. This social pressure could easily push you into racism in one way or another and thus undermine your ability to be not-racist.
You may currently find yourself under pressure to pretend to be racist, either because your family or peer group holds values historically typical racist beliefs to be morally good or, as the anti-racist scholars and activists pressuring you to do so would have it, by adopting a lens on society that places social significance into racial categories, allegedly as a means of combating racism. (Your family and peer group may hold values typical of these new racists beliefs to be morally good too!) These you should resist on principle, even against peer pressure.
This pressure from nominally “anti-racist” activists may present itself in the form of “doing the work” of genuinely convincing yourself that you are racist (this is typically part of their approach to “anti-racism”). Because people who admit to, convince themselves of, or pretend to be racist for the sake of doing their anti-racism work are currently regarded as more virtuous than those who don’t, you could feel a moral or social imperative to take on and affirm racist beliefs. You might even experience guilt or a sense of inadequacy if you are not able to find any racist beliefs in your own psyche. This could lead you to look outside yourself and take on responsibility for historical racism committed by people who have the same skin color as you in order to acquire some vicarious racism that you can then present as your own in order to demonstrate yourself to be “doing the work.” This is insane. It’s also making you into a racist, despite the misleading branding of the program telling you to do it.
Having a strong sense of your own principles should make it easier to notice and object to people trying to get you to do, believe, or affirm anything you don’t believe in. Our current polarized situation has produced bullies who should be resisted on principle, even if they are on your side. Be confident that your own position as a not-racist holds a moral and epistemological high ground.
Of note, it is possible to understand these first three steps in being not-racist as the whole program. Step one, getting to know yourself, is like finding the “you are here” sticker on a map. Identifying consistent principles and standards is like figuring out where you intend to go. Becoming consistently principled is the process of getting from point A to point B on that map. The remaining nine points are mostly intended to provide refinement and clarification that deepens your ability to successfully undertake these first three steps. Once you’ve properly finished this step and have become consistently principled on issues of race and racism, however, you can consider yourself fully not-racist.
As you become more confidently principled, you should become more aware of the relevance of your own agency in being racist (in any degree) or not-racist. You will realize that it is increasingly volitional—a matter of belief and action on your part—to put discriminatory or prejudicial social significance into racial categories. In turn, you can increase your confidence that racism is best understood as a matter of belief or action, not states of being or coded social systems. The matter of intention returns to the question, and you can more easily recognize racism in yourself and others—and reject it.
Here is where the importance of universal humanity and individualism as fundamentally not-racist principles arises to prominence. When we understand that each person is an individual who is part of a greater shared humanity that transcends any of us and all group identities, we are capable of understanding racism correctly. Racism is a matter of belief and action on the part of individuals or racially prejudiced processes that individuals have embedded into institutions, and it should be met on that level and rejected there. This is what being not-racist requires.
Some analyses of racism begin from the supposition that “systemic racism” must be the cause for any statistical differences in outcome between some racial groups and others. By definition, this “systemic racism” is posited to operate in hidden ways throughout the entire system. Reflect upon this for a moment. Does it apply consistently and equally to all races, or does it ascribe special social significance (like “dominant,” “privileged,” or “oppressed”) to certain racial categories and not others and thus justify seeing those categories in a prejudicial light? If an analytical approach does the latter, it is racist, especially if it then advocates or applies any form of discrimination to remediate that alleged problem. Those who wish to be confident about being consistently not-racist should avoid such slanted analyses.
Here, it is important to note that avoiding such special significance does not preclude paying attention to rigorous and important sociological scholarship being done looking at demographic data with the intention of understanding and remedying disparities in society. We can and should be looking at racially salient discrepancies in outcomes by demographic categories, including race, but we should be as cautious about assuming racism is the cause for these as we would be about assuming racism can’t be a contributor to them. It is entirely possible to be not-racist while acknowledging that racism still exists and impacts non-white people more often than white people and to do so without taking a reductionist stance that divides privileged and marginalized groups simplistically by race and attributing every relevant difference in outcomes to racism.
The reductionist Critical Race Theory stance often fails to acknowledge the significance of class/wealth and family/home life dynamics, which often have a more significant impact on someone’s life prospects than race. It also fails to consider cultural differences between minority groups that show, for example, the success of many Asian groups and Jews, which contradicts simplistic claims of white privilege, and of African immigrants, which in turn casts doubt on the value of a blanket explanation of disparities as caused by anti-Blackness. It also fails to consider the growing spheres in society—most commonly in academia and activism—where being a racial minority confers advantage and has thus led to some white people in those spheres pretending to be a person of color in order to advance their careers and/or enhance their status. It also downplays the relevance of individual agency and sees race in an overly deterministic way, albeit not through biology but through socialization into allegedly racist systems.
Reality is simply more complicated than Critical Race Theory often allows for. This real complexity requires people who want to engage with issues of race and social justice to take a rigorous approaches—which Critical Race Theory tends to reject—when looking at demographics and systems in society. Therefore, when presented with a claim of systemic racism, it is important to ask whether the “system” in which the “systemic racism” is alleged to occur is even clearly defined. Is it something specific that depends upon the actions and beliefs of individuals, which have agency, including in setting institutional policy, or is it that which is in some way independent of or transcendent to human agency? A “system” that is vaguely defined yet designated as “racist” may require you to place social significance into racial categories in a way that is, in the end, racist. For example, claiming that “the system” is intrinsically anti-Black and privileging of whites implicitly assigns social significance that is very likely to be both prejudicial and discriminatory to both groups. This would not only be racist but risk making the “system” more racist as well by advocating an explicit rebalancing according to racial group identity, which is a form of discrimination. Being not-racist requires resisting such approaches and remaining consistent in applying your principles.
Be confident in rejecting racist assumptions made about any group, individual, or system, especially when these are made in terms that are associated with racial groups (e.g., “whiteness,” “acting white,” “white” or “brown fragility,” or “white-adjacency”). This is not the same thing as refusing to see racism when it occurs in any of those. Furthermore, reject analyses and approaches to minimizing racism that advocate different principles, interpretations, or behavioral codes for different racial categories, as this requires putting social significance into racial categories in a prejudicial way (it prejudges those categories as needing to do certain work or being excused from certain expectations and responsibilities, which is racist).
In particular, reject calls for “racial reconciliation,” which erroneously replace individuals, who possess agency and thus can reconcile differences with one another, with groups, which do not and thus cannot, usually by putting certain expectations on the members of the different racial categories because of their racial categorization. Understand that “whites” did not do terrible things to “blacks,” but rather that some (or, in fact, many) white people did terrible things to some (or many) black people—most of whom are no longer alive in any case. That they did so by putting social significance into racial categories for that expressed purpose is more reason to avoid repeating that behavior if you want to be not-racist.
Respect empirical scholarship that looks rigorously into whether prejudiced social significance is being put into racial groups in institutions including education, the criminal justice system, and employment. By the same token, be much more skeptical about any kind of alleged scholarship which claims to be able to see it by applying a particular theoretical lens to any system. That skepticism should proceed from asking questions like, “does this lens proceed by putting social significance into racial categories?” If it does, either in assumption, conclusion, or practice, it is probably racist and is unlikely to help you be not-racist.
Accept that it is possible to acknowledge and even to want to study, understand, and even minimize or end statistical differences in outcomes by race without having an obligation to take any specific action (which would be a racist assumption if connected to belonging to one’s racial category, e.g., believing white people must be racial allies to other races and must support their causes, engage in activism on their behalves, forward their work, etc.). That is, it is possible to be not-racist without being an activist (put otherwise: “passively anti-racist”), which Critical Race Theorists like Robin DiAngelo deny. Recognizing that one does not possess the necessary resources or skills to tackle the problem responsibly is, in fact, better than taking on ham-handed attempts that may not be productive or may be counterproductive. Not acting, like neutrality, is not just an option; it is sometimes a necessary option and often the best option. You can feel confidently not-racist if you believe all differences in outcomes between races that are the result of genuine (but not necessarily perceived) injustices should be minimized and eventually ended but do not yourself focus on racial issues. You could be focused on any number of important issues to make the world a better place or simply trying to get through your own life and support your family and friends. Being not-racist and even being opposed to racism does not require activism on that issue.
Furthermore, to be not-racist, accept that racism depends upon both intention and impact. While people may speak or act in a way that puts social significance into racial categories in ways that are genuinely racist without intending to do so, it is also very often the case that the relevant social significance is being read into the situation by an offended recipient and is thus located in a different place than one might expect. For example, it has been claimed that complimenting a black person on how well they articulated a point is racist while making the same observation of a white person would not be offensive. The rationale for this is that there is a stereotype that black people are unintelligent or inarticulate and thus expressing admiration could be experienced as surprise—i.e., you articulated something well even though you are black. Of course, someone who is not-racist and therefore does not have such an unwarranted assumption about black people would have to actually acquire it in order to be make sure they didn’t spontaneously express appreciation of someone bringing clarity to an issue unless they were white. This is, of course, both insane and racist, not only because it requires assuming that black people are widely believed to have inferior verbal skills but because it also assumes the black person themselves will think in this way rather than having the same pride in a point well-made as white people generally do and would appreciate having this acknowledged as much as white people generally do. The person finding racism in the compliment is placing a social significance of unreasonable hypersensitivity into black people.
Note well: a belief that one race uniformly enjoys a systemic power dynamic over another, thus necessitating a racial double standard, places the racist kind of social significance into racial categories. Accepting that we can only control our own beliefs and actions and not how other people receive them is central to good mental health. It also prevents us from trying to make assumptions about how other people may interpret an action based on their race, which is to place social significance onto race and thus make racist assumptions.
Take this example from Derald Wing Sue, author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life. The concept of microaggressions is a prime example of the problem of prioritizing impact over intention while teaching people how to experience impacts through a theoretical racial lens. In a blog of similar title, Sue writes,
Not too long ago, I (Asian American) boarded a small plane with an African American colleague in the early hours of the morning. As there were few passengers, the flight attendant told us to sit anywhere, so we choose seats near the front of the plane and across the aisle from one another.
At the last minute, three white men entered the plane and took seats in front of us. Just before takeoff, the flight attendant, who is white, asked if we would mind moving to the back of the aircraft to better balance the plane’s weight. We grudgingly complied but felt singled out as passengers of color in being told to “move to the back of the bus.” When we expressed these feelings to the attendant, she indignantly denied the charge, became defensive, stated that her intent was to ensure the flight’s safety, and wanted to give us some privacy.
Since we had entered the plane first, I asked why she did not ask the white men to move instead of us. She became indignant, stated that we had misunderstood her intentions, claimed she did not see “color,” suggested that we were being ” In the case of the flight attendant, I am sure that she believed she was acting with the best of intentions and probably felt aghast that someone would accuse her of such a horrendous act. …
Our research and those of many social psychologists suggest that most people, like the flight attendant, harbor unconscious biases and prejudices that leak out in many interpersonal situations and decision points. In other words, the attendant was acting with bias—she just didn’t know it. Getting perpetrators to realize that they are acting in a biased manner is a monumental task because (a) on a conscious level they see themselves as fair-minded individuals who would never consciously discriminate, (b) they are genuinely not aware of their biases, and (c) their self image of being “a good moral human being” is assailed if they realize and acknowledge that they possess biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.
So, in Sue’s analysis, his own perception of being asked to move being reminiscent of black Americans being made to sit at the back of the bus is because of the social significance he attached to race. His assignment of this social significance to race is then considered authoritative while the flight attendant’s belief that she hadn’t attached social significance to race (“seen color”) and had just been doing her job of making the plane safe was false. Sue has it entirely backwards. In order to have behaved the way Sue wished to her to, the flight attendant would have needed to look at Sue and his colleague, attach social significance to their races by deeming them to be those of people who have historically been required to sit at the back of buses, and then consciously asked the white people to move back instead. This, in Sue’s mind, would actually have been less racist. It is, in fact, more racist by a consistent definition of racism. Here, Sue, not the flight attendant, is guilty of racism because Sue, not the flight attendant, put social significance into racial categories in a negative way, which was then made worse by projecting it onto the flight attendant.
Now consider an exercise. Read only the paragraph below and then stop and think about your answer before reading on.
You are a white shop assistant. Your job is to welcome customers as they enter the shop and offer them assistance. You are very conscious of the concept of racial microaggressions and determined not to perpetrate any. A black customer and a white customer enter the shop at the same time. Which do you approach first?
If you answered that you would approach the black person first because you did not want to commit the microaggression of treating him as a second-class citizen, you will indeed have avoided that particular pitfall. However, you are now vulnerable to being accused of having committed the microaggression of not trusting a black person to peruse the shelves without stealing anything should the customer be an adherent to this kind of theory. He probably isn’t and might well not appreciate your immediate racializing of his appearance in your shop if he were to know about it. Resist putting such social significance into his race and just treat him like the human being he is. You may also have committed the further microaggression of having unconsciously picked him to appear less racist than you actually are. By putting social significance into racial categories in accordance with this nominally “anti-racist” Theory, you are actually bringing racism into a situation in which it does not naturally occur. If you want to be not-racist, you should not do this or should stop doing it if you currently are.
If you discover yourself to be putting negative social significance into racial categories, spend some time being honestly introspective about this and take practical steps towards resolving the problem. This might include being self-aware and keeping a journal to address your own prejudices or widening your social circle or embarking on a shared project or hobby with a racially diverse group of people. It becomes harder to maintain the false belief that any racial group of people is inferior when you spend time interacting and cooperating with them. While trying to address your own racism, be particularly conscientious about ensuring that you do not commit any racist action.
If you find that you do have racist beliefs keep them to yourself or discuss them privately with a trusted friend or therapist who also recognizes it as a problem. This may seem cowardly in this moment when anti-racist scholars and activists are pressuring people to admit their racism and their complicity in racist systems. We think not. In contradiction to those who believe we should all accept racism as ordinary and permanent (although bad), there is much reason to think that it is no longer either. In fact, the system itself can be not-racist and still generate different outcomes by race as well because other causes than just “systemic racism” exist. We contend that racism is best countered by maintaining and enforcing a social norm that people should be ashamed of racism and thus incentivized to minimize their racist beliefs and actions and keep them from impacting others. Evidence shows this to be the case, at least in reverse, with preliminary results showing that “diversity” or “anti-racism” training that proceeds by putting social significance into racial categories tends to make racial issues, including racism, worse. This is no surprise because putting social significance into racial categories is the origin of racism, and teaching people to do it will therefore typically result in more racism. In particular, and in light of this, we should regard it as particularly unacceptable for our institutions to be racist.
One of the most important aspects to being not-racist is adopting standards and using tools that do not depend on putting social significance into racial categories. Choosing and deferring to standards that are objective—meaning that they apply regardless of who one happens to be—are a significant part of this. Some examples of objective standards that can be set and deferred to include standardized testing or other qualifying requirements that do not change based on who someone happens to be, the law when equality before the law is required, standard protocols, empirical evidence and rationality, and use of a standard currency that has the same value for everyone paired with prices that do not change from person to person. Though none of these kinds of standards is perfectly objective, and corruptions, biases, and failures of objectivity are possible, the goal of minimizing subjective determinations should be maintained as much as possible in order to make sure individuals and institutions are not-racist. That is; one should not deny that biases, including racial ones, can exist, but the emphasis should be on taking steps to eliminate them rather than taking a defeatist stance by accepting their inevitability and trying to compensate in the other direction.
Setting and maintaining objective standards is already quite difficult, as there are many factors that have to be considered in most cases, but they are the greatest safeguard from the unique sorts of corruptions that come with relying upon subjective standards that are maintained in the eye of, or at the caprice of, the beholder. In particular, especially in any situation where social significance is being placed into racial categories, the most objective standards possible minimize the possibility for racism in individuals, institutions, and systems.
To see the value and importance of objective standards in this regard, consider some examples of the types mentioned above. When there are standardized qualifying tests, all those who pass the test are qualified and thus demonstrably worthy of consideration, regardless of any subjective factors. When citizens are equal before and under the law, it is impossible to give members of some groups special treatment if the law is executed faithfully. When protocols are standard, the biases of the people administering them cannot influence their execution. When we rely upon empirical evidence and rationality to settle factual disputes, the standards for truth are external to individuals and accessible to anyone who is willing to check (science is universal, which means it is for everybody, not just white, Western men). When currency is universal, anyone who can afford to buy something can have it if it is available for purchase, and sellers will be motivated to overcome biases to sell it to them. These sorts of standards equalize whereas subjective standards are extremely prone to biases, including racism when resulting from putting social significance into racial categories in order to discriminate.
Generally, because biological racism has been rightly discredited, racists do not want objective standards anywhere that their racist ideology is relevant. They do not want races they deem to be inferior to have access to opportunities, products, services, or fair treatment, and they want the opposite—special treatment, extra opportunity, and privileges—for races they deem superior. They want systems to be more subjective rather than minimally subjective (i.e., as objective as possible) because that enables them to apply their biased, racist beliefs to the advantage of some races at the expense of others. They want to be able to discriminate on the basis of race, and this begins by putting social significance into racial categories and designing it to that purpose.
Being not-racist, then, requires doing the opposite of this. It requires looking for the greatest degree of objectivity in the standards we set and encouraging a norm of deferring to those objective standards to the best of our abilities. Particularly, it requires doing so in a “colorblind” fashion that does not ascribe social significance to racial categories where it can be used for prejudice and discrimination. It also requires constantly being willing to re-evaluate existing protocols and standards to ensure that they are, in fact, admitting a minimal amount of identifiable bias and subjectivity and that subjectivity, when it is applied, does so upon factors other than social significance being placed into racial categories.
In other words, someone who is not-racist prefers the maximum amount of objectivity that can currently be achieved, looks for ways to increase it, and does not rely upon racial categories when subjectivity cannot be avoided. If this is you, then there’s a good chance that you’re not racist. If not, spend time asking yourself how you can encourage more objectivity and willingness to defer to objective standards. Wrestle with the idea of what objectivity is and why it matters.
Some approaches to analyzing racism and to “anti-racism,” like Critical Race Theory, insist the opposite, that objectivity is neither desirable nor possible (according to Robin DiAngelo, for example), but this is almost completely a mistake. Because this is such an alarming claim, it helps to see several examples from the relevant Critical Social Justice literature where it is made. For example, DiAngelo writes,
A significant aspect of the white script derives from our seeing ourselves as both objective and unique. To understand white fragility, we have to begin to understand why we cannot fully be either; we must understand the forces of socialization. We make sense of perceptions and experiences through our particular cultural lens. This lens is neither universal nor objective, and without it, a person could not function in any human society. But exploring these cultural frameworks can be particularly challenging in Western culture precisely because of two key Western ideologies: individualism and objectivity. Briefly, individualism holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups. Objectivity tells us that it is possible to be free of all bias. These ideologies make it very difficult for white people to explore the collective aspects of the white experience. (White Fragility, p. 9)
We find a further example in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, where he writes,
In my first course with Mazama, she lectured on Asante’s contention that objectivity was really “collective subjectivity.” She concluded, “It is impossible to be objective.” It was the sort of simple idea that shifted my view of the world immediately. It made so much sense to me as I recalled the subjective choices I’d made as an aspiring journalist and scholar. If objectivity was dead, though, I needed a replacement. I flung up my hand like an eighth-grader. “Yes?” “If we can’t be objective, then what should we strive to do?” She stared at me as she gathered her words. Not a woman of many words, it did not take long. “Just tell the truth. That’s what we should strive to do. Tell the truth.” (p. 178)
We find yet another example of this thinking in Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, where she claims, “Whiteness positions itself as the norm. It refuses to recognise itself for what it is. Its so-called ‘objectivity’ and ‘reason’ is its most potent and insidious tool for maintaining power” (p. 117). We also see it in Sherwood Thompson’s Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice in several places, including these two:
Another central tenet of critical pedagogy is that knowledge is not neutral but rather a social construction rooted in power. As such, knowledge must be interrogated to understand how it privileges particular voices, experiences, and perspectives. Rejecting the claim of “objective” knowledge, critical pedagogues recognize that traditional curricular programs work against the interests of students who are most vulnerable in society. (Entry on “knowledge construction,” p. 161)
Ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary field that critically interrogates questions of power and race/ethnicity, historically and presently. It centers generative questions about the changing meaning of race/ethnicity across space and time. Ethnic studies, furthermore, examines how dominant, interlocking structures of domination—white supremacy, capitalism, (hetero)patriarchy, and other systems—inform the everyday experiences of aggrieved communities. Beyond simply contributing to new academic literature on underrepresented histories and experiences, the field of ethnic studies aims to produce transformative academic knowledge by demonstrating the way power operates, problematizing dominant discourses, and providing alternative understandings of social phenomena. Challenging notions of “objectivity” and “universality” in the social sciences, ethnic studies produces academic knowledge from multiple vantage points (Fong, 2008). (Entry on “ethnic studies,” p. 310)
Needless to say after seeing so many examples, the denial of objectivity in the Critical Social Justice ideology is a fundamental belief of that system of thought, and it rests on a simple but perplexing philosophical truth that has vexed philosophers (arguably unnecessarily) for centuries. The tiny kernel of truth that they point to is that perfect objectivity by any individual is not possible, but these approaches ironically fail to understand that a methodological system that enables self-correction and checking can enable the minimization of or elimination of biases (and that we have devised very good methods for doing this in many disciplines and walks of life). They would be more accurate if they said that objectivity is desirable and often closely, but not perfectly, achievable. The goal to make as many decisions we recognize as being best and/or most fairly decided on facts require us to make those decisions in a way that is as impersonal as possible. Accepting that such standards, while imperfect, are more fair because they minimize favoritism of any particular individual or group is critical to being not-racist.
Spend some more time considering their claim that objectivity—here, especially meaning by not putting social significance into racial categories in terms of evaluating their worth as claims to knowledge or for evaluation of perceived merit—is not desirable. This is a claim to want to do racism in the sense of putting social significance into racial categories specifically to discriminate between the claims and merits of people accordingly. It is also a call to go a step further and to inject subjective determinations into the situations, which would allow people to judge according to whether or not a person holds the right views—say about the social significance of racial categories—or not. This is not only racist, then, but a desire to justify being racist. People who want to be not-racist should understand this mistake and reject these approaches.
While it is true that racism is out there and that people who are not racist would refuse to participate in or support this (and, ideally, expose and speak up about it), you should not assume racism is present and then look for anything that can be interpreted that way. This is not only inviting the cognitive flaw of confirmation bias. It is racist in that it assumes the relevance of discriminatory social significance in racial categories where it is not. For example, recently people on social media decided that the term “master bedroom” contains racism because of the use of the term “master” and the possible implication that it refers to where slave masters slept, even though this is not true (the term originated in a Sears catalog in the 1920s). This went far enough where real estate groups stopped using the term out of “racial sensitivity.” This, however, views black people as likely to be poorly equipped to deal with a common-parlance use of the word “master” or as so emotionally sensitive as to find offense in something innocuous—or, worse, to be unable to succeed in a world that doesn’t infantilize them in this way. That means it puts prejudicial social significance into their racial category, which is racist.
This tendency fits in with a broader trend that seems to be learned in various approaches to “anti-racism” that are rooted in conceptual frameworks like Critical Race Theory, namely a tendency to find offense in the inoffensive on the presumption that someone else (of particular races) will eventually do so. This, again, puts social significance into those racial categories as well as into others that are deemed unlikely to do so. This is therefore a racist behavior that people should not do if they want to be not-racist. Check with yourself to see if you are taking offense for things without a full consideration for why most people don’t find them offensive, especially if you’re doing so on behalf of other people of different races. Also check with yourself to see if you assume that certain racial groups either are unlikely to be offended by racially offensive stereotypes, scapegoating, and characterizations or that they somehow should have to put up with it even if they are. This is also racist and thus inappropriate if you want to be not-racist.
Another variation upon this theme is to ascribe to racism genuine problems that are not genuinely racist but caused by something else, usually economic class (poverty), which also correlates statistically with racial demographics. For example, when a hurricane like Katrina strikes a city like New Orleans, people in low-income housing are going to be the hardest hit. They’re least likely to live on high ground, least likely to be able to relocate, least likely to be able to purchase necessary supplies, and so on. In many such cases, the relevant populations skew heavily toward minority races, and some of this is due to the legacy of historical racism, including pervasive institutional racism. Calling this problem “environmental racism,” however, looks for “racism” in a problem of economic class because there is no prima facie reason to accept that race has anything to do with one’s capacity to adapt around and survive a natural disaster. Though rooted in statistical realities that are in turn rooted in genuine racism, especially of the past, this is a problem of poverty that affects all poor people similarly. It requires adding the social significance of “likely to be poor” or “unable to achieve social mobility” to a racial category, which is prejudicial.
There is no need to ignore the legacies of racism and the genuine racial disparities in problems like poverty while resisting calling them “racism.” In fact, resisting calling these problems “racism” enables other not-racist approaches, like using objective standards like empirical inquiry, to step in to best understand the problem and, hopefully, solve it as quickly and effectively as can be done. If you want to be not-racist, pause to ask yourself if you tend to use statistics to conflate class issues with race. This is racist for the same reason that relying on racial stereotypes to prejudicially assume something about an individual of that race would be. Being not-racist means trying to understand the genuine causes of problems and naming as racism that which actually is racism.
In general, a bias toward equity—equality of outcomes—can be achieved most effectively and successfully by applying equality where equity lacks. Usually, this will begin by labeling problems honestly, especially problems where the determining or causal variable is other than racism but correlates with race, as with poverty in many situations. Approaching the inequity through equality maintains trust and faith in the approach and system employing it, does not tend to trigger claims of unfairness by others being discriminated against (including by not being discriminated for in a situation with limited access), and achieves equity aims anyway. If five times as many poor people are racial minorities than otherwise in a particular circumstance, for example, addressing poverty in a colorblind fashion will benefit racial minorities up to five times as significantly, which is an equitable outcome that didn’t rely upon ham-handed and racist “equity” programs that depend upon putting social significance into racial categories for the purpose of discrimination. Of note, a specific focus on race rather than class also tends to benefit racial minorities from wealthy backgrounds, not the “racial group” in question, thus doing nothing to increase the upward mobility of those in poverty due to historical racial oppression.
Another domain in which racism is applied where it doesn’t belong is to culture, under a heading that’s often called “cultural racism” (sometimes described as the “new racism” now that biological and institutional racism are very rare). Cultural racism is said to be part of systemic racism and arises when a “dominant” culture doesn’t value the expressions of other cultures as much as it values its own. Certainly, there can be biases toward one’s culture that exist for good reasons and others that exist for bad ones, and this is a problem worth considering. Seeing this as a form of racism, though, is racist and inappropriate. Individuals can adopt any culture they (or their families, as it often happens) want, regardless of their race, and except for certain very superficial aspects of culture that are relevant to physical features that might differ from one race to another on average, there is very little causal relationship between race and culture. Believing there is involves putting social significance into racial categories where it doesn’t belong, and assuming someone’s cultural expressions because of their race is, in fact, prejudicial.
Being not-racist requires more honesty and nuance than this, which can be difficult. Ask yourself if you tend to conflate culture with race, for example thinking in terms of “black culture” or “white culture” as though it is anything more than a stereotype that may possess some statistical accuracy. You could refine this understanding by connecting cultures and other features of identity that are more relevant, such as ethnicity, religion, nationality, regionality, political persuasion, affinity, and so on, to get a more granular and accurate picture of the relevant culture in a way that is faithful to how human beings organize communities and share values and forms of expression within them than by race. Being not-racist would require taking time to make one’s cultural identifiers more accurate and meaningful than labeling them as “racial.”
As a specific extension of the idea of not adding race to a situation where it doesn’t belong, being not-racist means rejecting standpoint epistemology. Standpoint epistemology (in the “anti-racist” sense) is the belief that people’s knowledge is related to their racial identity, which also dictates their position in society (relative to systemic power) and thus the standpoint from which they see it.
Standpoint epistemology can have some validity when it is related to groups of people defined by shared beliefs—e.g., Christians, Muslims, and atheists all have different standpoints on the divinity or not of Christ—or groups defined by material factors—e.g., a coal miner might have a different perspective on mining coal than the owner of a coal mine. It can also carry some validity among people with similar experience, and it is there that the relevant question lies: to what degree do people in specific racial categories have similar enough experiences (and interpretations thereof) to merit considering their standpoint generative of knowledge?
When it comes to groups of people defined by race, attempting to ascribe a particular kind of knowledge or experience to them appears fairly limited. While it may provide some genuine insight, it is also likely to result in generalizations, stereotyping, or presumptuously declaring one particular viewpoint as the authentic voice of a certain race. More importantly, it is often taken much too far, as though “lived experience” or “lived realities” constitutes a kind of genuine expertise that must be deferred to on (usually political) terms set by the people claiming that special access to standpoint. This expectation of deferral can even trump empirical evidence on a claim of “if you lived with racism, you wouldn’t need evidence to know it’s there,” which is the sort of standpoint epistemology that must be rejected for all not-racist people.
This mindset might seem extreme, but it’s increasingly common. It is now often claimed by a certain kind of anti-racist that there is such a thing as being “politically black” or that there is a “unique voice of color” that comes with a certain competence to speak about racism. What this implies is that there is a correct sociopolitical stance regarding racism that is only accessible through the lived experience of having lived as a member of that racial category. Though this technically avoids essentializing the racial category, it does put social significance into the relevant racial categories by insisting that they interpret their own experiences in a particular way. Specifically, each racial category becomes imbued with the social significance of being those people who have a particular experience of society and who adopt a particular interpretive frame for that experience (lest they be labeled “inauthentic” members of their racial category).
Although being black is certainly more likely to give one experience of having experienced anti-black racism, however, this does not mean there is only one political stance to have on it or a unique way to speak about it. When “anti-racists” tell us to “listen to people of color,” they usually mean to listen to the ones who share the same beliefs and political positions as they themselves do—that is, “authentic” members of those racial categories who reflect their correct social significance. In reality, anybody who thinks there is a unique political black voice on racism probably needs to listen to a wider range of black intellectuals who speak about racism. This belief could not survive reading Angela Davis alongside Thomas Sowell or Kimberlé Crenshaw alongside Candace Owens. Once you have worked your way through contemporary black thinkers including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram Kendi, Shelby Steele, Cornell West, Glen Loury, Coleman Hughes, Michelle Alexander, John McWhorter, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Clarence Thomas, among many others, your belief in a racial standpoint epistemology should be thoroughly cured. This will help you become not-racist.
Sadly, the wish to believe in a unique black experience, knowledge or political standpoint, when held by a white anti-racist activist, is often more about how the activist needs to see herself and the purpose in life she needs to feel. A genuine wish to understand the experiences and knowledge of black people on the subject of racism would include people reading the work of those who don’t already agree with them. Even worse, this can sometimes result in attempts to delegitimize viewpoint diversity among black people, ascribe terrible motivations to dissenters and even call them racial slurs. White people who do this must understand that addressing racism is not about them or their need to appear virtuous by finding racism in themselves, and no black or brown people are obliged to enable their self-flagellation (expecting them to would, in fact, be racist). They should make sure they read and listen to a variety of views and then evaluate them on their evidence and the merits of argumentation (more objective standards). This is lost if we allow ourselves to see color all the time and lose sight of individuality. That social significance simply isn’t warranted or helpful.
Learn to spot the difference between reacting through compassion and acting to solve problems. There is a tendency for humans to believe that if they just care enough and say the right things, all problems can be solved. As big-brained, speaking, and story-telling apes, we often fall prey to significantly overestimating the power of our brains, speech, and stories and significantly underestimating the importance of evidence and solid reasoning. This is almost certainly because it has been more beneficial to human survival to be in good standing with a group of people than to be factually correct. This leads us to be more driven to speak virtuously into shared narratives that have moral meaning than to question it. Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, describes this as humans having an inner lawyer rather than an inner scientist.
As hominid brains tripled in size over the last 5 million years, developing language and a vastly improved ability to reason, why did we evolve an inner lawyer, rather than an inner judge or scientist? Wouldn’t it have been most adaptive for our ancestors to figure out the truth, the real truth about who did what and why, rather than using all that brainpower just to find evidence in support of what they wanted to believe? That depends on which you think was more important for our ancestors’ survival: truth or reputation.
By realizing that we have an inner lawyer rather than an inner scientist, we have to understand that Haidt’s point about moral behavior would also apply to tribal matters of social identity. In short, social identity is the sense of identity and belonging that a person gets when they see themselves as a member of an identifiable social group, which can be as loosely defined as “people on this side of the room” or as tightly defined as the kind of strict adherence to a set of beliefs as we see in highly closed-off cults. Haidt’s observations would imply that people will then “lawyer” their way into justifying their social tribalism within the groups that provide them with meaningful avenues to their social identities.
What is known about the psychology of social identity is that when people derive a sense of identity from their social group, they will very reliably begin to do a few things. First, they will tend to take steps to define themselves more clearly and even rigidly in line with whatever bases that social identity has, whether by sticking closer to “their” side of the room on average or studying the relevant political and philosophical ideology of people with whom they believe they identify. Second, they will seek to signal their belonging to that group and to other groups so it is clear where they stand. Third, they will engage in what is known as “parochial altruism” on behalf of their group and against other and competing groups. This means that they will become unreasonably charitable toward the views and members of their own social identity groups while becoming unreasonably uncharitable and even hostile toward outgroups, especially those in some sort of competition with their own. This is where compassion can easily get hijacked and turn tribal, leading, as Haidt puts it about morality (or moral identity), to “binding and blinding” the group one identifies with. We can, in a sense, learn to care too much about what our social peers (claim to) care about and too little about anything else, especially what rival groups (claim to) care about.
Placing social significance into racial categories to turn them into racial identity groups, as did black feminists like bell hooks and Critical Race Theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw by saying “I am Black” means something more important and significant than “I am a person who happens to be black” because the latter statement centers universal humanity instead of group identity, gets this dangerously backwards. In principle, it may be possible to remain not-racist in the sense of not placing prejudicial or discriminatory social significance into racial categories under such an “identity-first” approach, but it would be exceedingly difficult as it would require constantly checking in and overriding the deep-seated social identity impulse outlined above. Our inner lawyer is very likely to convince us in such a situation that ingroup favoritism and outgroup disfavoritism or hostility, including prejudice, discrimination, negative stereotyping, and scapegoating—if not outright superiority and inferiority dynamics—are all justified parts of maintaining and signaling a racial social identity. People who wish to be not racists have to be very cautious around this and are better off entirely avoiding making racial categories into meaningful social identity labels.
People who want to be not-racist should also take a leaf out of the work of Paul Bloom and his important book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Bloom contends that there are two types of empathy: rational and emotional, to put it in simplest terms. Emotional empathy is often not strategic and can easily lead to bad decision-making and manipulation. Rational, or intellectual, empathy seeks to understand the problem clearly and act upon it rationally with the intention of creating not just some result but the best possible result. Much of what was outlined in previous sections of this guide to being not-racist touched upon the importance of getting the relevant problems right if we want to solve them. This would include avoiding being seduced into taking up bad action now because it is doing something in the midst of a highly emotional moment.
Pause to appreciate that alongside the general argument of Bloom (who is white), black intellectuals as politically diverse as the conservative Shelby Steele and the progressive Michelle Alexander have argued (for different reasons) that quick fixes in the form of racial affirmative action act mostly to alleviate white guilt have while either entrenching or hiding disadvantages experienced by black communities. It is very easy to fall into ineffective or damaging lines of thinking when the relevant issues demanding compassion are both racially salient and being framed very explicitly in racial terms, for example that the problems faced statistically in greater proportions by black or brown people in society are best understood on the level of “identity groups” and the result of an overarching “white” system that does not properly value them. This would be an emotional seduction through compassion into racism. Not-racists would do better to slow down, acknowledge the problem, and start to try to understand it on the most rational terms possible and then to take strategic action that can impact the problem in the best way.
Empathy is, of course, an important component of being fully human and of the core fabric of liberalism that seeks to advance the equal rights and opportunities of others while oppressing people as little as possible or none at all. It is often what moves us to social good and to caring about issues that genuinely deserve to be labeled with the words “social justice.” Curbing our impulse to compassion is therefore an important ingredient in resisting the currently powerful temptations to oversimplified and vague explanations for problems that may have some degree of truth to them and thus demand clarity and rigor. Racism that results from group-based thinking is far easier when people are demanding group-based empathy rather than empathy for individuals in the real terms they describe. A clear example of this going wrong is failing to listen to actual black and brown people who defy the prevailing narrative or don’t wish to take part in it, especially when one’s motivation is an overactive need to be empathetic in a clumsy, group-oriented way. Not-racist people should slow down, think, and avoid this sort of behavior.
In terms of becoming or being not-racist, you should take a moment to check with yourself to see if your compassion and empathy are being hijacked to emotional and social identity-based approaches and ends. This is very likely, especially given the prevalence of claims to “black pain” that can be extremely moving and often rooted in genuine material issues that are racially salient. Such claims should move all caring people, but they need not move them to any particular line of belief or action, especially about entire racial categories or those individuals who happen to be assigned to them. If your empathy is being hijacked in this way, it will blind you to more effective, more consistent, not-racist approaches to dealing with the issues of race and racism.
Some problems really are down to racism, and people who are not-racist should care about those and should feel motivated to do something about them. Nevertheless, not all problems that are ascribed to racism are, in fact, the result of racism, and the ideologies and Theories that try to teach that they are often convince us through our empathy and compassion to take on their worldview. This can mislead us into the racism of putting prejudicial and discriminatory social significance into racial categories. Check with yourself and start taking steps to avoid this. If you aren’t doing this already, good for you. You should feel more confident and comfortable in the belief that you are not racist.
So far, much of this guide has either circled around or explicitly mentioned Critical Race Theory and indicated that it is a racist approach to the issue of race and racism and thus should be avoided by those who wish to be not-racist. While this assessment is correct, it should not be taken as advice to avoid learning what Critical Race Theory has to say. That, in fact, people who really want to be not-racist should do, for at least three reasons: to be familiar with it, to make productive use of its hyperactive racism detection, and to reject it.
First, learning Critical Race Theory will inform them of what Critical Race Theory is and how it views the world. It does this through a lens of putting a great deal of social significance into racial categories while claiming that it is, in fact, only doing this in reaction to a society that already does and thus forces it to—a misleading belief that it holds very sincerely. Second, Critical Race Theory has the superpower of detecting hidden racism in everything and is occasionally therefore right about racism that other people don’t see, though these analyses must be taken with a large grain of salt because the Theory begins from the assumption that racism is present in all social phenomena and therefore is bound to be right occasionally—but not through the soundness of its methods (someone calling every piece of food a potato will sometimes be right but never for a discerning reason). Third, as has been the experience of both authors of this guide, it will enable a person who wants to be not-racist to learn to see the world through the racist lens of Critical Race Theory in real time and reject it. Because Critical Race Theory offers such a subtle seduction into a peculiar form of racist thought, learning to see and reject the Critical Race Theory interpretation for social phenomena will tend to make one less (or not) racist and inspire a great deal of confidence in rightly understanding oneself as being not-racist.
In broadest strokes, Critical Race Theory begins from the assumption that racial categories are already imbued with social significance for the purposes of particular kinds of prejudice and discrimination by default. Indeed, it openly asserts that the existing racial categories were invented by white people specifically to give themselves privileges and exclusive access to society, its opportunities, and its resources and to exclude other races via racism—and that this remains the true understanding of racial categories whether people realize it or not. It goes further from this and asserts that racism either “has permanence” or “is permanent” (one of the original Critical Race Theorists, Derrick Bell, explicitly said both) and therefore does not improve with time and progress but merely takes new forms and hides itself more successfully while being every bit as deleterious and impactful as ever (including as under the brutal American system of African slavery). This should be of particular concern to not-racists who consider themselves progressive as this does require one to both acknowledge progress that has been achieved and consider further progress achievable.
Critical Race Theory is therefore the study of racism in this immanently “systemic” way, which carries the goal of being able to use “criticism” or “critique” to find the (hidden) racism in everything and “make it visible” so that social action might reject it. Because of the permanence of racism, rejection of racism is only possible according to Critical Race Theory by dismantling the current system and replacing it from the ground up with one built on its “anti-racist” terms. It therefore explicitly rejects incremental and step-by-step improvements and many of the fundamental principles of liberal society, including “equality theory, legal reasoning, and neutral principles of constitutional law,” according to two prominent Critical Race Theorists, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.
It usually phrases its core doctrine by saying that “racism is the ordinary state of affairs in society,” not an aberration from them. This state of affairs it directly attributes to whiteness and white people, whom it explains invented race and racism in the first place and are today complicit in racism by virtue of the white privilege that the allegedly racist social order affords them by default. It then believes that in this way all people, especially white people, are socialized into a “racist worldview” in which white people “internalize dominance” and members of other races “internalize oppression” or “internalize racism” as a form of false consciousness by believing it right, natural, justified, or “just the way things are” (the racial status quo). This, obviously, assigns social significance to all the various racial categories in ways that are often prejudicial and require discrimination as a course of recommended activism, which is evidenced by certain racial groups, e.g., frequently Asians, being designated as “model minorities” or “white adjacent” and others, including black people, who adopt “white culture” as “acting white,” which is a strong pejorative. That is, Critical Race Theory begins from racism and proceeds by racism. People who want to be not-racist should approach Critical Race Theory with this understanding and make use of it specifically to lead them away from being racist and toward being not-racist.
The ultimate purpose of Critical Race Theory is to help people see the hidden ways that racist social significance is allegedly relevant in all social phenomena and interactions, especially cross-racial ones. (Note well that monoracial interactions are also racial interactions by a presumption of exclusion and also by allowing people to behave differently than they would in a mixed-race situation, either in an oppressive sense like white people feeling free to be racist or in a “liberatory” sense like racial minorities escaping the “universal presence of whiteness.”) Learning to see these mysterious ways and means of racism is handy training so that you, in aiming to be not-racist, can start to learn more subtle ways that either you might be or might be expected (by Critical Race Theory, particularly) to put social significance into racial categories, which you can then reject on principle. In that sense, learning enough Critical Race Theory to understand how it would think about various situations and interactions so that you can reject those interpretations can help you become much more not-racist than you would have been otherwise. Just be careful to remember that while some of the observations that Critical Race Theory makes have some partial validity, what genuinely tends to help someone become not-racist in Critical Race Theory is learning to reject its limited and racist interpretations and prescriptions as soon as they can be recognized.
For example, we can see the influence of critical race theory’s rejection of individuality and objectivity in this breakdown of “White Supremacy Culture” for Allies of Racial Equality, which also claims perfectionism and appreciation of writing skills to be part of white supremacy. Other allegedly anti-racist arguments have claimed appreciation of reason to be a characteristic of white supremacy, argued for a white empiricism that operates in opposition to black lived experience, or claimed research to be a dirty word for indigenous people. The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture thankfully removed a “whiteness” graphic that included hard work, punctuality, and politeness as traits of white culture when the racism inherent in this claim was pointed out to them. It was deeply concerning that this should ever have been considered acceptable and remains a concern that the underlying beliefs have not changed significantly since. This kind of rhetoric, which asserts that individuality, reason, empiricism, literacy, a work ethic, and manners belong only to white people, despite the abundant evidence of polite and hard-working scientists, rationalists, empiricists, and writers of all races, is a kind of racism that can result from internalizing Critical Race Theory and must be rejected by all not-racists. People who aim to be not-racist can learn from this by rejecting all temptation to think that way in the light of seeing it done for an ostensibly noble cause.
In short, for those who want to be not-racist, learning a little Critical Race Theory and why it goes wrong can go a long way. It can, for example, be very useful when meeting people in cross-racial or mixed-racial environments to realize something like, “Critical Race Theory would tell me that racism must be relevant to this interaction” and then decide that not only is that claim absurd but also damaging to the interaction itself and the relationships within it. That is, understanding how Critical Race Theory would poison that interaction can lead to understanding why putting actionable social significance in racial categories and then making that significance more salient is a bad approach to relating to other human beings in virtually every setting.
As discussed in the previous section, it is also beneficial to learn the various ways that Critical Race Theory language, especially emotional language and loaded arguments, lead people into thinking it is valuable and necessary to put social significance into racial categories, which very frequently leads to racist patterns (especially in its conflict-theory based construction that positions racial groups as opposite one another in a conflict for status, resources, power, privilege, and opportunity in society). Let’s take some examples of common claims made by activists inspired by Critical Race Theory that need to be rejected in order to be not-racist and draw out their illogic and counterproductiveness.
Example: “When you say you don’t see race, you are ignoring racism. To pretend you don’t see it erases the experiences of black people!”
This is a rhetorical claim that conflates an individual not seeing—applying actionable social significance to—race with that individual ignoring times when another person, group, or organization may be applying social significance to race for the purposes of prejudice or discrimination. It simply doesn’t follow that someone who declines to engage in a behavior themselves is unable to see other people engaging in it. In fact, someone who has articulated a position of not seeing—attaching actionable social significance to—race almost certainly does so because they believe this is immoral and is therefore more likely to object to other people doing it. Nor is “not seeing race” a mere pretense that erases experiences of racism felt by black people. A white person can quite consistently not place social significance into the race of a black person and also empathize with that person’s experiences of racism and help them seek redress for it.
This common claim—that Critical Race Theory isn’t racializing circumstances but is, in fact, actually responding to racialization that is already (universally) present (and immanent)—doesn’t make much sense either. People (of any color) only live in a racialized society when large sections of it are not practicing colorblindness. A racialized society is one in which socially constructed racial categories are imposed upon people. A colorblind society is one in which socially constructed racial categories are not imposed on people. Therefore, someone wishing to address racism that still exists in society could reasonably disagree that we already live in a colorblind society but not that people who are trying to make it so are the problem.
Example: “You can help with tearing down the racist systems and structures that support you and kill me and my sons based on flawed science crafted by flawed White and European people. White people admitting they are racist is necessary for those individuals desiring to do something right now.”
This highly emotive claim that it is essential to the very lives of black people for white people to “admit to” racism is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, it requires hideously cynical mind-reading in asserting that all white people place social significance into racial categories that regard black people as inferior, which has not been established as true and which many white people who are the actual authority over their own minds will know it is not true. Secondly, it presents pretending to believe black people to be inferior (or consuming a sufficient quantity of Critical Race Theory to actually acquire the false belief in the inferiority of black people) is actually a virtue and helpful in some way. This has certainly not been shown to be true nor has any convincing argument been made that people can become less racist by convincing themselves they are racist. Note well that this argument clearly aims to leverage immediate action by hijacking compassion, which hearkens back to our advice to curb compassion if you want to be consistently not-racist.
These examples are useful for learning to see how Critical Race Theory distorts the world, and learning to recognize these distortions and rejecting them is helpful to avoid its manipulations and to thinking about issues of race and racism in more clear and consistently principled ways. That is, the examples put forth by Critical Race Theorists and their hyperactive racism detection can present excellent exercises for developing your own consistent principles around the issue by means of seeing how their analyses fail in an overzealous attempt to succeed.
Another significant and instructive way in which Critical Race Theory goes wrong that is of relevance to people who want to be not-racist is in its rather blatant attempt to fight racism with racism. That is, whereas Critical Race Theory (along with more sober analyses) rightly recognizes that in many ways the racism that we have in the world today owes a great deal historically to white people who put social significance into racial categories in order to manipulate society according to their agendas, it goes wrong by repeating this mistake and replanting the seed of racism. Putting social significance into racial categories in expressly political ways is extremely likely to result in the politics of supremacy or of grievance, and in both cases, prejudice, discrimination, and narratives about racial superiority and inferiority are likely to arise. Predictably, Critical Race Theory ends up fighting racism with racism, which not only maintains and increases racism but multiplies it.
The last two hundred fifty years have been a long, slow process of using universal liberal principles that center the individual and our common humanity and thus reduce the social significance of racial categories, and they have done so very successfully, though not completely. Critical Race Theory arose in the frustrations of the last stages of this process, when diminishing returns in race-based activism and concomitant public ambivalence around the greatly shrunken issue combined and motivated the “critical” style of activism that seeks to find hidden racism in ever more abstract layers of social phenomena and law. This approach then developed in a way that seems to have driven some activists to conclude that putting social significance back into racial categories in a full-throated, “identity-first” way is a necessary step toward ending racism in society. It is in this way that Critical Race Theory seized defeat from the jaws of victory and gave birth to a new form of racism bearing the standard of the only true form of “anti-racism.” People who wish to be not-racist must be judicious in assessing its claims for that reason and should aim to understand and then reject it.
To be completely fair, this argument isn’t to say the Critical Race Theorists don’t have some point, of course, and that is why it can be fruitful for those who want to be not-racist to learn how Critical Race Theory sees the world and how it goes wrong in its analysis of essentially everything. This can lead you to more consistent principles that avoid putting social significance into racial categories in the ways that are generative of racism, if you do so at all.
When you understand the fundamentals and some of the details of Critical Race Theory while setting those against the consistent universal principles you developed at the beginning of this guide, you will be better able to discern what Critical Race Theory gets right about the relevant issues. This will allow you to honestly recognize those points that Critical Race Theory is attempting to find solutions to but in the wrong ways. This, combined with learning to see and reject the bad analysis of Critical Race Theory in real time, can let you identify the remaining problems that frustrate Critical Race Theorists. It will also help you learn to find better solutions to those problems by stealing the kernel of “the work” prescribed by Critical Race Theory and to approach the issues without doing Critical Race Theory. This is an advanced but valuable step in mastering being not-racist.
What, then, does Critical Race Theory get almost right, and what can you do to steal that kernel of truth and do better than it can with it?
One point Critical Race Theory gets right is that our relationships, especially cross-racial relationships, should be authentic, which requires that they are not made inauthentic by racism—the placement of actionable social significance into racial categories. For Critical Race Theorists, the presumption is that racism is present by default, and so an “authentic” cross-racial relationship is one that is continually acknowledging this dynamic and attempting to break it down. In this way, they are right in their call for authentic relationships but wrong in their prescription for how to have them. An authentic relationship between two people sees them as two individuals who are in relationship with one another, person to person, heart to heart, and mind to mind. They are not ambassadors of racial groups with all of the relevant bad history and racial identity politics carried in tow. People who are not racist will form authentic relationships with each other as individuals (with common humanity and probably interests or goals). Race might still be significant in the relationship, but it will be minimally so. In this way, people can relate honestly to one another as they are: as individuals.
One aspect of having authentic cross-racial relationships that the Critical Race Theorists also rightly identify is that the relationship shouldn’t recenter one person’s needs at the expense of the other. Critical Race Theory would warn against the member of the more dominant racial group centering their needs over those of the more oppressed group in every applicable situation, but it can, in fact, go both ways (and often goes the opposite direction under the explicit “racial sensitivity” instruction of Critical Race Theory). Nevertheless, Critical Race Theorists are right that it is inappropriate for a member of an allegedly dominant racial group to bother all of their “oppressed” friends with apologies, requests to explain racism, confessions of racism, etc. None of this, at this level of generality, is relevant to an authentic relationship between two individuals. By the same token, neither is wanting to talk about racism, assuming racism into the relationship, calling out as “racism” that which is normal human interaction, etc., all the time. People who want to be not-racist should avoid all of this and only address the issues when it is natural and relevant to the circumstances.
In similar fashion, Critical Race Theory is right that if people want to understand the issue of race and racism more thoroughly, they should read more diverse sources, listen to more diverse voices, consider the perspectives—including the phenomenological interpretations of lived experiences and stories—of people of diverse (racial) backgrounds. Listening, reading, and learning more, and more widely, is a good recommendation that Critical Race Theory then perverts by assigning priority to “oppressed” sources and minimizing the worth of sources speaking from, or into, “dominance.” Phrases like “white people’s stories have been told” are both false and racist, as they assume that the stories of white people come from a place of both prejudice and discrimination based upon social significance that has been placed into that racial category.
Furthermore, when seeking more diverse sources to take in and consider, recognize the importance of viewpoint diversity. As noted above in this guide, there exists a very wide range of perspectives from people of every racial group about social and cultural issues that might be relevant to the issue of race and racism. There are progressives, liberals, conservatives, and so on—including atheists and religious people of diverse creeds—within every racial category, and even within each of these subcategories, there is likely to be much diversity of thought if one is open to it. Critical Race Theory takes the racist assumption that the lived experience associated with particular races is effectively essential and deterministic due to the prevailing power dynamics in society (which are ordinary and permanent), and it therefore assigns both an authentic voice (the Critical Theory of the relevant race) and weight of that voice to each racial category. This leads to ignoring the intellectual and ideological diversity present among black people and erasing the contributions of black intellectuals, activists, political pundits and journalists who do not subscribe to Critical Race Theory. That is, it places prejudicial and discriminatory social significance into the racial categories due to its overarching assumptions about racial power dynamics, which is made worse by how simplistic and low-resolution the relevant categories and descriptions of power are. Read and listen widely in your quest to be not-racist, and do not make the mistake of pigeonholing yourself to an allegedly “authentic” voice that is said to speak for some racial category.
In this process, do accept the request in Critical Race Theory for humility, including “racial” and “cultural humility,” by not assuming you already know everything. Be willing to read, relate, listen, and engage. At the same time, reject the temptation or insistence (as Critical Race Theory would have it) to engage only through one doctrine or lens, particularly one that places actionable and prejudicial social significance into racial categories, where it does not belong. Realize that you can hear and consider perspectives genuinely without having to accept them as stated, and reject demands that you continue to engage until you’ve engaged properly, say through a particular form of consciousness or understanding, such as a critical consciousness.
Finally, be willing to acknowledge that there are disparities in the world that statistically correlate with racial categories in significant ways that have resulted from genuine unfairness and legitimate racism. Recognize that these disparities can, in fact, be partly—though not wholly—deterministic upon one’s life trajectory, genuinely making success harder for some people (not groups that may have statistical salience) to attain. Unfortunately, the human tendency to overcompensate in response to problems has produced in some a form of resistance to Critical Race Theory’s determination to see racism everywhere that involves an equal determination to see racism nowhere. This is the opposite of helpful. In order to address racism in a principled and effective way, seek the most rigorous and clear understanding and pathways to solutions as is possible. Critical Race Theory is not such an approach except when engaged as indicated in this and the previous section in this guide if your goal is to be not-racist.
Undertaking these sorts of activities are what Critical Race Theory refers to as “doing the work.” People who wish to have a robust and deep understanding of the relevant issues around race and racism should, in fact, do what part of “the work” as they can, but they should do so on terms that are set by the identification and adoption of consistent principles that do not place discriminatory or prejudicial social significance into racial categories in any way whatsoever. Thus, people who want to be not-racist should be willing to “do the work” but not on the terms Critical Race Theory demands, which are themselves racist and productive of more racism.
As discussed in the sections above, colorblindness—not putting actionable social significance into racial categories—is the right principle for engaging with race and racism in society, despite the protestations of Critical Race Theorists who misunderstand it and consider it a form of racism. If you want to be not-racist, you must be colorblind, though not blindly colorblind. If you already are genuinely colorblind while retaining a reasonable awareness of the realities of genuine racism, then you are already far along the curve toward being not-racist.
So as not to belabor the point, which has been duly covered already at some length above, rather than detailing further what being colorblind is and isn’t, in this section we would like to present the final frontier of colorblindness: being willing to fairly criticize people when they deserve it without reservations based upon their race. If you are unwilling or hesitant to criticize someone of any particular race, or if you are wont to criticize anyone because of their race, you are putting prejudicial and discriminatory social significance into racial categories and are thereby harboring racist beliefs and/or acting in a racist way.
Ideas and behaviors don’t have races, and thus it cannot be racist to criticize an idea or a behavior, regardless of what Critical Race Theorists may say. In the realm of arguments, for example, the identity of the person making the argument is utterly irrelevant to its content unless it is a very specific kind of claim about one’s experience “as a…,” which is a starting place, not terminus, for rigorous inquiry.
By way of anecdote about the authors, when Helen and James began working together at first, Helen accused James of being “the least sexist person” she had ever met because he was willing to be harshly critical of her ideas as ideas irrespective of the fact that they had been forwarded to him as a woman (failing to do this is a form of what is known as “benevolent sexism”). This led Helen to suspect that many other men she had worked with had softened their disagreement due to a fear of seeming aggressive to a woman. She had already addressed the problem with them doing this in more blatant ones in a previous essay about feminism. There, she wrote,
Recently, in a disagreement with an intersectional feminist man, he began to change his mind! Much encouraged, I continued the discussion. After some time, I checked his bio and spotted that he was carrying on a parallel conversation with another man in which he was expressing exactly the same views he had since changed in our conversation. Challenging him on this, I was informed that he did not feel he should disrespect my lived experience as a woman by contradicting it with his own views as a man. However, he still disagreed with me and felt able to say so to another man. I could not get him to see that all this had achieved was excluding me from the conversation and wasting my time. I might as well have been made to withdraw to the drawing room to let the men talk.
Withholding or reserving due criticism from someone, their arguments, ideas, or behaviors because of their race not only fails to help them but also requires racist assumptions that have sometimes been referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (originally phrased this way by President George W. Bush of the United States). This “soft” bigotry proceeds upon the assumption that the other person cannot take the criticism or that there are some set of extenuating circumstances that make their error more likely than not, which would seem to render the criticism unfair (a more reasonable application of this line of prejudicial thought is “don’t be so harsh, he’s just a child” when speaking about an actual child). In short, withholding or softening justified criticism in this way places rather ugly prejudicial social significance in the relevant racial categories and thus was aptly named by George Bush. Just as it is wrong and racist to criticize someone because of their race, it is also wrong and racist to hesitate to criticize them because of their race, and people who are not racist should avoid this.
This is an excellent place to pause to check yourself on this behavior before proceeding to an even more difficult case for many people. Do you hesitate to criticize the ideas, arguments, or behaviors of people of other races because other white people have done so for motives of racism, because you fear being thought racist, or even because you believe members of those racial groups can’t be expected to know or do better because of a legacy of racism? If so, realize you have found a way that you are being racist even if that proceeds from the best intentions, and realize further you are doing no favors for the people who you probably are being too compassionate for in the wrong ways. When Shelby Steele laments the ways that white guilt created a situation in which the prevailing circumstances conspired to enable his immaturity as a young black man dabbling in the Black Power movement, this is what he meant. People who are not racist will not do this and will criticize and hold duly responsible people in all situations regardless of their race.
Of some note, Critical Race Theory explicitly rejects much of this last stage of being not-racist. For example, in its critiques of law enforcement and aim to abolish prisons—because these disproportionately fine and incarcerate black and Hispanic men who also disproportionately earn it, although some proportion of this is likely to do with racist historical antecedents or with more stringent policing of poor high-crime areas which are predominantly non-white—they fail to hold people to justified account on the basis of their racial category. In its attempts to assign to “whiteness,” “white culture,” or “white supremacy” characteristics like productivity, loyalty, reliability, punctuality, civility, perfectionism, reliance upon epistemic adequacy, science, reason, rationality, neutral principles of law, and grammar, Critical Race Theory implies that people of color shouldn’t be expected to uphold them or perform under their expectation. It also implicitly makes the case that those are “anti-Black” characteristics. This, we all realize, they would immediately and rightly identify as racist if a member of the Ku Klux Klan did it, and it is racist when they do it as well. When Critical Race Theory criticizes the “responsibilization” of minoritized races, it very often does so in a way that proceeds directly from the soft bigotry of low expectations, which is to say racism. People who want to be not-racist must reject these beliefs and attitudes along with the unwillingness to hold people to the same standards regardless of their races (though, of course, there can be robust discussion about what the standards should be).
An even more difficult dimension of true colorblindness for most people in today’s milieu is to be comfortable making friendly ethnic and some racial (not racist) jokes in good humor. If you find yourself more comfortable with racial jokes about some races than others or think someone’s race matters in being able to make such jokes—again, assuming good-humored intentions as opposed to disparaging intentions—then you are very likely placing racist social significance into the relevant racial categories. Being not-racist requires not doing this. This differences—ethnic versus racial versus racist—are important and subtle, however, and must be drawn out clearly, even if the lines between them can sometimes be blurry.
Ethnic jokes are about cultural mores, and although it is somewhat racist (in our usage) to equate cultures and races, there is enough truth to it not only to be real but also that it’s a profoundly deep vein of professional comedy. You are probably aware of how much more comfortable you are, regardless of your race, with jokes about “white culture” when made by anyone than you are about jokes made about “black culture” unless made by certain black people who occupy a unique position within that culture. This joking is not inherently unhealthy and has done much to overcome racism. It can also be fruitful in navigating cross-cultural relationships, though sensitivity, care, and trust are necessary. The main point, however, is that if there are double standards in this regard that are rooted in race, then racism is still present and must be investigated more honestly. (An instructively less-sensitive parallel domain would be friendly jokes across nationalities or sports teams.)
Racial jokes are jokes that will involve race in some important way in a more direct sense. Most often, these will involve making jokes that have something to do with physical characteristics that may not have any moral relevance whatsoever. For example, making jokes about light-skinned people’s legs being “reflective” in the sun in the springtime or dark-skinned people being harder to see in the dark can be racial jokes that need not be racist. There is nothing wrong with making such jokes, just as there is nothing wrong with making jokes about tallness or shortness. To perceive some such jokes as “racist” and others not that way, however, requires placing the wrong kinds of social significance into racial categories, which is rooted in racism. (An instructively less-sensitive parallel domain would be jokes across the sexes that do not carry sexist intent or impact in the eyes of a fair-minded observe.)
Racist jokes are racial jokes that carry the intention of racial disparagement or that are sufficiently insensitive on racial grounds to create the impact of such in a way that most fair-minded observers would agree was “off color.” It is obviously not possible to make racist jokes and maintain a status of being not-racist. Again, the line dividing a racist joke from a racial one is fuzzy and personal, not clear-cut or universal, so a principled ethic of approaching each relationship as between individuals who can work it out between themselves as such is essential in navigating this domain.
Being not-racist would imply being able to make good-natured and friendly jokes across ethnic and racial lines, just as it would imply being able to criticize across them. It would not include making intentionally racist jokes, just as it would not include intentionally criticizing anyone because of their race. Any hesitance or unwillingness to behave in these ways—which would be natural from one individual to another in the absence of any social significance having been placed in the relevant racial categories—would be a potential indicator of racism. People who want to be not-racist can investigate this for themselves and use the results to become more confidently not-racist.
Here we have come full-circle: to be not-racist, just don’t put actionable social significance into racial categories for the purposes of prejudice or discrimination, especially when it can lead to beliefs about racial superiority or inferiority. We cannot just leave it there, however. It is also necessary to speak of being “not-racist” in positive terms rather than the purely negative one of not placing social significance into race. What does a society in which we don’t consider race to be relevant to every interaction and sphere of life look like? It looks quite a lot like the one we were making great strides towards up until quite recently but which is currently in danger of regression to a system in which society will be, yet again, intentionally stratified along racial lines while this discrimination is justified explicitly as a moral good. It is not a moral good.
Humans are tribal and territorial animals and, sadly, it is unlikely we will ever entirely free ourselves of ingroup bias and outgroup prejudice. Still, it is absolutely essential to maintain a consensus that our tendency towards tribalism is unworthy and needs minimizing, especially when placed in immutable characteristics like one’s race, sex, gender, sexuality, and so on. Tribalism and territorialism are human intuitions that may once have helped us survive in harsh terrains with limited resources, but now mostly serves to create prejudices and biases and justify regarding other humans as less than human. Tribalism is something each individual has a responsibility to be aware of in themselves and fight against. It is also something we should mitigate by setting up institutions that seek to minimize it. Fortunately, race is a relatively weak axis of human tribalism (as compared to modes of dress, speech, faith, etc.), and so discouraging tribalism by race (i.e., racism) is entirely possible and best achieved by making race minimally relevant. Understanding this and acting upon it is part of being not-racist.
Specifically, there is simply no reason why we should form group loyalties on the grounds of superficial differences like skin color, hair texture, or nose and eye shape. This is truly stupid and unworthy of an advanced liberal democracy, and we had made great strides in accepting it as such by chipping away at illegitimate prejudicial and discriminatory social significance that had been placed in racial categories. This was done in earlier periods of human history that preceded the advent and maturation of liberalism, which successfully disrupted and dismantled racism by focusing upon universal humanity and human individualism. As a result, racist views were—and in many corners still are—increasingly being recognized as being held by ignorant and unethical members of society whose beliefs, speech, and actions did not deserve to be held in esteem. That is, racism had been on the decline and, to paraphrase Thomas Sowell, was little more than on life support until quite recently.
Having come so close to realizing the crowning achievement of liberal ethics on racism—a complete marginalization of racism even while maintaining protections of speech and belief that make its marginalization genuine instead of forced—we are currently backtracking due to a number of complexly interrelated factors. These include the refugee crisis and a corresponding rise of populism and nationalism, as well as an increasing social conservatism brought about by de-industrialisation and financial uncertainty for the working class. They sadly also include Critical Race Theory and its regressive attempts to address racism in radically counterproductive ways that serve to legitimize and re-entrench racial division.
The solution to racism is rather clear then: consistent principles of liberalism that recognize our shared universal humanity, forward individualism, defer to the most objective standards possible, and, most importantly, adheres to a colorblind ethic that does not place prejudicial or discriminatory social significance into racial categories. This cannot be achieved by doing precisely the opposite, particularly by using a so-called “identity-first” approach that begins from the placement of social significance in racial categories. The Critical Race Theorists, specifically Kimberlé Crenshaw (one of the originators of the Theory), are simply wrong in asserting that “I am Black” has more meaning and importance than “I am a person who happens to be Black.” They are even more wrong for the reason given in defense of this mistaken, illiberal, and racist idea:
“I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance, but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to. celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, non-determinant.
Identity politics that begin by putting social significance into racial categories in ways that are prejudicial, discriminatory, or productive of attitudes of racial superiority or inferiority are themselves racist, and fighting racism with racism does not reduce racism but multiplies it. In this sense, Critical Race Theory, though in some sense pointed in a different direction than white supremacy, reproduces white supremacy’s fundamental mistake and reintroduces into the world the identical seed of racism that it claims to be trying to remove. This is unacceptable. A real solution to racism does the opposite, and people who wish to be proudly and confidently not-racist understand this and put it into action.
It’s Time to Be Not-Racist
It is, frankly, ludicrous that we have felt the need to spend nearly 25,000 words setting out ways to be not-racist, but this is the current state of affairs. Part of this need results from our liberal ethics having fallen asleep in their post-Civil Rights, post-Soviet-threat comfort—Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” Liberal societies became complacent that the liberal state of affairs was so obviously superior to authoritarian, hierarchical, totalitarian, and stratified systems that there was no longer a need to argue for consistent principles of non-discrimination, freedom of belief and speech, and tolerance of diverse viewpoints. This invitation to complacency occurred even while conditions in the world changed in ways that reliably can reawaken racial tensions and even racism—immigration, migration, politics, a push from our academies and institutions to re-litigate the past and interpret Civil Rights successes as masked failures, and the development of social media and its capacity to reignite tribalism and form echo-chambers.
Much of the problem necessitating a guide on how to be not-racist is the direct result of deliberate manipulations of the liberal order that require answers. We haven’t just grown complacent in our liberal ethics; those same ethics have been hijacked in the name of identity politics pushed into a space of post-Civil Rights white guilt. This effort has encouraged the emergence of racist beliefs under the academic and Theoretical guise of a more sophisticated, “Critical” approach to “anti-racism.” For the person who would be not-racist, neither of these circumstances is acceptable, and both must be resisted from a position of consistent principles.
Chances are, unless you are racist and you know it, you have been blindsided by this apparently recent emergence of a totally new way to conceive of racism. The truth is, you probably weren’t racist in the first place, and you’re probably not racist now. Though you may not have thought about it as much as you might have done, you probably already know yourself on this issue, have consistent principles, and live them out. Most of us in the Western world already do. You also probably already understand racism in terms of individual attitudes, beliefs, speech, and actions, or as matters of bad institutional policy you wish to see corrected. You likely defer to objective, fair standards rooted in consistent applications of equality and reject standpoint epistemology as anything but a possible starting place for a more thorough investigation. You probably understand the kernel of Critical Race Theory—that issues like racism can be more complicated than people think they are—and are committed to our best and brightest doing the best research, getting the best answers, and taking the best action to eliminate or minimize it. You’re probably already reading, listening, and interacting with different ethnic and cultural groups more than any previous generation—without issues, problems, or lacking authenticity. You probably already see ideas as ideas that can and should be criticized regardless of who forwards them, are not cynical about everything, don’t look for racism where it isn’t, reject discrimination viscerally, and don’t put prejudicial social significance into racial categories or accept any narratives of racial superiority or inferiority. This is because, for most of you, you will already be philosophically liberal in the relevant ways and will know that the principles upon which that philosophy rests are the right ones: individualism, universal humanity, equality, valuing merit, seeking objectivity, rule of law, employing rationality, favoring dignity and civility, and so on. That is, you’re probably already mostly or completely not-racist, and you should feel comfortable and confident in that and proud of the liberal heritage that made it so that so many of us can be that way in our time.
You can be not-racist and you probably already are. You can be not-racist! The “anti-racists” aren’t just wrong about this; they’re manipulating you with it. As this guide hopefully makes clear, being not-racist is a fairly straightforward process. It requires little more than ceasing to put prejudicial social significance into racial categories and rejecting discrimination—and doing so consistently. The “anti-racists” have this completely wrong, then, and in their error they’re exerting a profound influence on society with misleading rhetoric that functions to manipulate the moral intuitions of those who already deplore racism. This is because its influence is facilitated by a little of the kinds of things the so-called “anti-racists” prescribe, but done in the right ways in the right doses: a little humility about the issue, some self-reflection, some self-honesty (which they’d call “self-critique”), and perhaps doing some reading and listening. These activities are not strictly required to be not-racist—and neither is being an “anti-racist” activist—because, the truth is, each of us is an individual who is free to reject racism on our own terms and in our own ways. If that’s you; if you genuinely reject racism and don’t put actionable social significance into racial categories, then congratulations! You are not racist.